Mississagi River Valley – Ontario at Its Best
I’m driving along the Trans-Canada Highway in northern Ontario passing towns I haven’t thought about since I lived in the small company town of Lively, just outside of Sudbury, more years ago than I care to confess to. Espanola, Spanish, Blind River and Iron Bridge go by before I arrive at Thessalon and the right turn onto Highway 129. I’m headed for the Mississagi River Valley along what biker’s have nicknamed Canada’s ‘The Tail of the Dragon’ looking for the Outpost Lodge where I will spend the next three days exploring an area that has been heralded for its natural beauty since humankind first set foot in the region. Hope you’ll come along for the ride and the hike and the fishing and the – well you get the idea, there’s a hell of a lot to see and do. So let’s get going on this first post from Ontario since I went fishing in the Kawarthas a few years ago.
At first the scenery is good, but not great, until just past the whistlestop of Wharncliffe when the Mississagi River first comes into view. The land has been steadily rising and the hills have started their rolling, each covered with a blanket of mixed deciduous and coniferous forest that shimmer in a thousand shades of green. It’s a beautiful forest and then come the blue, blue lakes that in combination with the forests and the occasional rock outcroppings for which the Canadian Shield is well known, make for a scene so stereotypically Canadian that you know you couldn’t be anywhere else in the world. This is the Canada that was introduced to the world by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. Even though millions of Canadians have never actually been this far north, for them and pretty well everyone else in the country who has, this is our essence. This IS Canada. Before I get a blast from the west coast, the Rockies, the prairies, the far north, the Quebecois, the Maritimers and the Newfoundlanders, I believe you are all part of our core existence and Canada would not be Canada without you, but this post is about northern Ontario, so let it have its day in the sun. It deserves it.
As I drive by Tunnel Lake Trading Post, there be dragons! I quickly turn around and take a closer look.
Resisting feeding the dragons will be easy, the black flies, not so much.
On the property is this large map of the Mississagi River Valley and I take time to study it carefully, noting that Outpost Lodge is not that far up the road.
Outpost Lodge, Mississagi River Valley
Ann and Jim Kehoe have been the owners of Outpost Lodge since 1987. Along with their son Jamie and their paradoxical Jack Russell Bo, who is neither super hyper or yappy, they run a Mom and Pop and Son and Dog operation.
Outpost Lodge was built way back in 1938 in the style that is generally referred to as Adirondack which utilizes native materials and siting that creates a feeling that the buildings belong and are part of the natural landscape. Besides the main lodge there are seven rustic cabins of various sizes spread throughout the property on a bluff above Lake Jobamageeshig.
On driving in I was met by Ann and then Bo who did the smell test and decided I was an OK guy. We were soon joined by Jim who gave us a tour of the property.
The lodge has a huge stone fireplace, the mandatory moose head, albeit a bit down in the mouth, bear and wolf skins, old logging tools and a great stuffed walleye.
But it has much, much more than your typical northern Canadian lodge. The place is like a museum. Both Ann and Jim are great collectors, as am I, of anything that strikes their fancy. This is just a sample.
The outside is also a continuation of the inside.
This is the dinner bell which is rung at 6:00 each evening signalling guests to dinner.
This has to be the Model T of snowmobiles.
After touring the grounds Jim led us to our cabin, #2 which is rustic, but quite adequate accommodation. It had a Franklin stove which we did not need to use thankfully. As you see it is nestled among the trees and has a deck which overlooks the lake which is about fifty feet below.
After showing to our cabin Jim said he would be right back with our bibles. For a second I thought ‘Oh no, Holy Rollers.’, but it turns out that the Outpost Lodge bibles are a compendium of things to do in the area and instructions on how to get to them. I took my copy from Jim and commenced my bible studies.
We are here on a full American Plan which gives us three meals a day – breakfast, a boxed lunch and dinner. Jim doubles as the chef and has a set menu for each day of the week. The first day it was baked ham with absolutely delicious scalloped potatoes, the second was roast turkey with all the trimmings and the third roast beef with an additional treat which I’ll come to.
The lake frontage includes a sandy beach which my cabin mate, Igor Kravtchenko took advantage of each day. I was content to take pictures from the shore.
Mississagi River Valley Fishing – From Lake to Table
The main reason most people come to the Mississagi River Valley is for the fishing. During our stay we shared the lodge with four guys front Toronto who brought their own boat and a lawyer/accountant (how’s that for a professional combination?) from Dayton, Ohio who has been coming to Outpost Lodge every year at least twice for the last twenty years. He also brought his own boat, but if you don’t have one the lodge will provide it for you. In our case we fished with Jim as guide all three days on both Lake Jobammageeshig where the lodge is situate and nearby Tunnel Lake.
We had success with jigs fishing for walleye, but not trolling for lake trout. This is a fish Igor landed on the first day.
On the second day I got really lucky and caught my limit, which we decided to keep for a meal or two of fresh walleye, which I think is the best tasting freshwater fish on the planet.
This is our catch from the second day.
Jim took us to the filleting shed where he taught Igor how to fillet a fish.
The next morning we had a great feed of lightly sautéed walleye to go with our pancakes. Igor had a special request for the largest walleye – could Jim prepare it as a whole fish. Quite frankly, I’d never heard of anyone preparing walleye in this manner and neither had Jim. Salmon and trout sure, but walleye? No way, or at least so I thought.
When the dinner bell rang that night we were presented with what I have dubbed walleye a la Kravtchenko. Jim had cleaned the fish and stuffed with a diced vegetable medley topped with lemon slices, a rasher of bacon and chopped green onions.
Was it any good? You be the judge.
Even on the day we caught no fish it was still great to be out on the water. The lakes in the Mississagi River Valley are clear, clean and the bare rocks come right down to the shore in many places – there is a reason the Group of Seven loved to paint in this area.
Fishing is by no means the only thing to do in the Mississagi River Valley. There are a number of great natural attractions that Igor and I visited during our stay including magnificent Aubrey Falls which is about fifty miles north of Outpost Lodge. It’s a really scenic drive, much of it alongside the Mississagi River where the highway dips, rises and turns with such frequency that I now knew why it was called The Tail of the Dragon. It’s an Ontario Provincial Park and you must park just beside the highway as a culvert between the turnoff and the parking lot has been out for some time. From the road it’s an easy walk to the parking lot after scrambling over the culvert.
From here on the path goes uphill all the way to the falls, but should be doable for most people. The day we were their the only other visitors were a couple of families each with a baby strapped to their father’s backs. Arriving at the falls you see this sign indicating that you have been preceded by Tom Thomson the man who provided the spark for the Group of Seven and by most people’s estimates is Canada’s greatest painter. He paddled the Mississagi River in 1912 and that trip inspired him to become a full time artist.It’s pretty humbling to be at almost the exact spot that led to the creation of some of Canada’s most iconic paintings including this one titled ‘Northern River’ which is actually the Mississagi River.
The first view of the falls comes from a foot bridge that spans the river and it’s pretty awesome as the Mississagi makes its way through a narrow gorge after plunging over seven distinct ridges.
This is the view down river in the opposite direction.It’s easy to see why Thomson was inspired to paint this river.
From the bridge you make your way up to a viewing area where you get to see this.
Igor, always looking for the better place from which to take a photograph scares the s*** out of me by practically leaning over the edge. How am I going to explain to his wife and kids that he died doing what he loved? Thankfully he doesn’t and I have no explaining to do.
Aubrey Falls is not by any means the only interesting place to visit in the Mississagi River Valley. This is The Jacuzzi, a roaring piece of water that, at the right time of year, you can literally step into and get the sensation of being in a jacuzzi, albeit a pretty cold one. This time Igor listens to me and doesn’t attempt it today.
For those who like their waterfalls a little less intense and in a setting that is perfect for a picnic I recommend Bell’s Falls which we visited on our second day at Outpost Lodge.
Rocky Candy Mountain
This is a view of the sheer drop from the top of Rock Candy Mountain just south of the Outpost Lodge.
There’s a trail to the top that’s a little more demanding than the one to Aubrey Falls, but you’ll be rewarded with this view of Tunnel Lake from the top. Also the mixed hardwood/softwood forest with wildflowers everywhere on the forest floor is as nice as any I’ve hiked anywhere in the world. I identified a lot of these wildflowers for Igor and he was inspired to create a tea towel of Wildflowers of Ontario which you might see in gift shops next summer. Stupidly I failed to take any pictures myself so you’ll have to buy the tea towel to see what we saw.
Outpost Lodge is one of those places where the old cliché ‘You arrive as strangers and part as friends.’ is actually quite true. I want to truly thank Jim, Ann, Jamie and Bo for three days I will never forget. My one regret is that we did not get to paddle the Mississagi River as many guests do, because the water levels were simply too high and the waters too dangerous. All the more reason to plan a return visit.