O, Canada! The Barron River Canyon and other stories.

On May 17th I set off to Toronto on the pretext of going to a conference as part of my PhD. Actually, I did go to the conference. I met lots of interesting people; some of them were interested in my work and thought it was worthwhile and well-founded which is always nice. Amongst other things, a professor from Edinburgh told us about how new diseases develop and spread into pandemics. That was interesting, but a little scary.

Maid of the Mist 

But that’s not what this is about, this is to fill you all in on a few things I did in Canada.

I arrived in Toronto with my conference buddies a few days before it started so we explored. We got the fast lift (144 stories, 58 seconds) to the top of the CN tower, looked at the amazing views and walked on the glass floor! We also spent 2 days at Niagara Falls. They are truly amazing. Going on the Maid of the Mist boat into the middle of the Horseshoe Falls was brilliant, I got soaked despite wearing a lovely poncho and the noise from the water is deafening. We also walked through some tunnels behind the falls where you can see just how fast the water is falling and the spray that circles up behind the falls as well as in front of them. Got soaked again after only just drying off from the boat trip! In Toronto, I also saw a castle, wandered round a vintage market, learnt about Canadian First Peoples at the museum and went to Toronto Islands.

After the work had finished, I went to Ottawa (well Gatineau nearby) to stay with Jim Hargreaves, who most of you met when he gave a talk in Liverpool in January. We had a lovely meal at his wife Line’s restaurant, pottered around a market and prepared for our forthcoming trip to Algonquin Park. We were planning a 2 day expedition to travel through several lakes and finally down the Barron River Canyon.


We prepared all the kit we’d need for paddling (not much as we hired the canoe/paddles at the park), our tents and we cooked rice ready to re-heat for dinner the next day.

I started to feel apprehensive about the trip into the wilderness when Jim gave me the bear spray that I was to take..

It’s basically pepper spray with a gas canister attached to spray it forcefully at the bear. Once Jim had managed to locate his GPS (I was getting worried about finding our way through the forest with the guy who couldn’t find his GPS!), we drank some wine and I went to bed feeling excited about the trip. Canadian geography is extremely confused, on the way to Algonquin Park the next day we drove past Glasgow, Pembroke, and then stopped for a cuppa in Cobden. We picked up the canoe at the edge of the park and signed in with the park rangers. A 30 minute drive later, we arrived at the Grand Lake where we would get in. On the way, we spotted a female moose that was pottering about in the middle of the road. When she heard the car, she looked for a moment, and then ran off into the woods. She was beautiful, like a tall horse with a big head and long, thin legs!

The difficulty of paddling across big lakes is spotting where to head to. We were going to the opposite bank to look for a small creek to lead us to the next lake. That isn’t so easy when the whole skyline is a bank of pine trees; they all look the same. After some searching we found it and portaged round a dam into Stratton Lake. At the next portage, Jim decided we could paddle down the rapid, so off we went. This is where I learnt an important lesson: when you are in the front of the canoe (me) and you shout at the person in the back of the boat who is steering and can’t see obstacles because you are in the way (Jim), you need to turn your head otherwise they can’t hear you over the water. Jim couldn’t hear my frantic shouts of “left, left, left!”, so we crashed into a fairly large rock at the bottom of the rapids. It looked better with a stripe of white paint on it anyway!

Ready to go! Jim on Lake Stratton Luxury Campsite! Jim making our breakfast

At this point, we changed our plan. The campsite we were heading for was on the Eastern side of the next lake and as the wind was Easterly, Jim suggested that we should head for a closer one on the Western bank of this lake. There were masses of mozzies and black flies, and we thought there would be less mozzies at a windy campsite. The spot we picked was lovely; there was a rocky outcrop (slightly windy here, less flies than in the trees) where Jim did some fishing and some people before us had built an amazing fireplace surrounded by armchairs made from big slabs of rock. After a glass of wine and some fishing we cooked our tea. We had boil in the bag curry and rice. The bag of rice wouldn’t sink in the pot of water and wasn’t cooking fast enough, so after some time we squashed it down with a big rock which worked brilliantly. The black flies drove us mad so we went off to bed, making sure that all the food was under the canoe, well away from the tents so as not to attract the bears.

After a bear-free night, we awoke to the day of mozzies, and portages. We cooked our breakfast of fried egg with bacon and beans over an open fire, then set off. We did many portages that day. The portages are clearly signed and can be short e.g. around a dam or shallow channel, or long e.g. around a waterfall with a long walk afterwards to get back to river level. We had to do each portage 3 times. The first time, with our bags and tents; second time was back to the start; the third time we took the boat and paddles. Sometimes we took one end of the boat each but mostly Jim carried the boat on his shoulders with the yoke and I carried paddles, bottles of water etc and the fishing rod. We did a lot of portages that day, 8 km in total! There were also a lot of mozzies as we were generally walking through woods, so we got bitten all over the place. Going to the loo was especially interesting! The most important thing to do when walking the portage is to put on a life jacket. We didn’t paddle with them on and to save carrying them with my hands I wore them. Then, most importantly, I took them off again when I got back in the boat.

The Barron River Canyon         The Portage sign…..         Map

The paddles in between all the portages were through stunning scenery. We went through calm, still lakes where the sky was reflected in the water. Finally we went through the Barron River Canyon, which was higher even than the Findhorn that I was airlifted out of. I can’t describe how beautiful the rocks were, so there’s a photo above. We got out just above Squirrel rapids and finally found some respite from the mozzies when we got in the car. After letting the rangers know we hadn’t been eaten by bears (didn’t even see a sniff of one) and dropping off the canoe, we drove to Cobden again for burger and chips. And so we’d done it! It was a really amazing trip, both strenuous and peaceful at the same time and certainly nothing like anything I’ve done before. I’m really grateful to Jim for taking me on such a brilliant trip and passing on some of his vast knowledge of the varied history of the landscape and people who live there.

I left Jim and Line’s the following day and had a fairly sedate couple of days in Montreal. It’s hard to imagine 2 cities as different as Toronto and Montreal, but there they are; only 335 miles apart in the same country. Toronto seems very wealthy, the big shiny buildings stare you in the face, but Montreal is altogether more relaxed and interesting, and very French. I had a lovely time wandering round the bistros and shops in the Quatier Latin, and had a delicious meal sitting at the long chrome bar in L’Express. I went to the Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve to have a look round, but it was closed up for the Grand Prix the following week. I also managed to experience the famous party life in Montreal by going on a bar crawl organised by my hostel. We ended up dancing in a massive student club where beer was CAD$7 for a pitcher (~£3.50)…… After Montreal I went back to Toronto and met up with some of my conference buddies again. We went to the baseball in the evening, where the game seemed a bit incidental. It goes at such a slow pace that the emphasis is on drinking beer and eating big pretzels! The next day I wandered round a chilled out, serene little garden and shopped in the Mountain Equipment Coop, a mecca for outdoorsy people! They sell everything from Pyranha kayaks, to climbing boots, to Jim’s Ottawa River guidebook (made me smile!), and I spent 2 hours and lots of money in there. After a 12 hour delay for the flight home (wouldn’t recommend flyglobespan), I arrived back feeling relaxed and happy that I’d had such an amazing 2 weeks away in a fantastic country. I’d love to go back there, and could even see myself living there. Wonder what Simon thinks of that……..


11 Responses

  1. I think moving there would be great. It would be a bit of a trek tho at Easter and the summer for Scotland and the Alps 😉 BUt Im sure we could sort out something more local to me out there once in a while.

    Ps Rachel has some pics about the whole thing if you want to see them. If you do you’ll need to clear an hr of your life for the privilage. But there are some really love amazing pics in there.

  2. All sounds amaaaaazing.
    Looking forward to see all you pics, and your new shiny paddle gear!

  3. Does sound like a top trip… Wilderness trips are good… I want to go to Canada too

  4. It sounds just amazing, Rachel…… what a fantastic opportunity and great to have the trip with Jim! Don’t like the sound of the bears though!!!!!

  5. Wow, it sounds like a great adventure! would like to see the pictures but i liked the story aswell! nice idea putting on a blog btw.

  6. Hi Rachel

    Sounds like you had a lot of fun, and a really good experience – clearly kayaking isn’t edgy enough for you, you had to have the added spice of the possibility of meeting a bear whilst doing it!

    ps if you do go live in Canada, we’ll come and visit you!

  7. What a fantastic adventure! look forward to seeing the pics 🙂
    I’d visit you both in Canada too!

  8. How have I only just found this post? The trip sounds AMAZING. if you’ve got some time this summer with all the busy housemoving and the like, I’d LOVE to see the photos. In fact…do a lecture of your own!!!

    p.s. did you get to keep the bear spray?

  9. […] – recipe for an adventurous summer – de-hydrate and re-hydrate Many of you have recently read Rachel’s Canada Report, especially her wilderness trip on the Barron river with Jim Hargreaves and other wild […]

  10. Really enjoyed reading your description of the Baron Canyon as we did the same canoe (minus the lakes) in June and loved it. We too were bitten a lot and wondered what the bugs fed on for most of the time as we were the only people there.

  11. […] my back was pretty sore and I had lots of physio. I’ve also been pretty busy working, and going to Canada so I’ve had quite a long time out of a boat. Lots of people (mostly non-paddling friends) […]

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