Mississagi River: Spanish Chutes to Aubrey Falls (8 days / 152 km)

As one of Northeastern Ontario’s lesser travelled routes, this is the perfect trip for intermediate to advanced paddlers looking to escape the crowds. Due to slightly more difficult access, there is a good chance of not seeing very many paddlers. There is a great combination of large and small lakes, whitewater and narrow river sections.

Trip Completed: August 2021


Trip Summary

Starting Point: Spanish Chutes

Ending Point: Aubrey Falls

Total Distance: 152 km

Duration: 8 days (recommend planning for 8-10 days)

Difficulty: Intermediate

Location

This route is located in Mississagi River Provincial Park just northwest of Sudbury and slightly more west of the Spanish River, as it shares the same headwaters. There are multiple starting points to choose from, depending on how long you want your trip and how much big lake paddling you want to do.

Maps & Resources

Map: The Adventure Map – Mississagi River Provincial Park. Topo maps: 041O08, 041O01, 041O02

Campsite Reservations: All sites first come first serve. Plan with that in mind due to the distance between some sites. May not be likely someone is at your desired site but be sure to plan a backup.

Permits: No permits are required due to it being a non-operating park.

Outfitters & Shuttles

Outfitters: We did not use an outfitter but there are a couple in the area. I have heard good things about Northern Skies Resort (formally Kegos Camp) and Missinaibi Headwaters. Reach out to as many outfitters as you can because some are no longer doing any shuttling.

Shuttle: A fairly lengthy shuttle down logging roads is needed for this trip. Luckily we had family drive us so we did not have to arrange for an outfitter to the shuttle.

Trip Report

Day 0: Driving to the Trailhead

After a lengthy drive from Barrie to Aubrey Falls, to drop our car off at the take-out, then have family shuttle us to the put-in, we were on the road by 4:30 am. After the 6.5-hour (without stopping) drive to get to Aubrey Falls, we hiked the trail to check out the falls before tossing all the gear in our shuttle’s truck to continue our drive.

Aubrey Falls was beautiful and had lots of side trails to explore. We were back on the road around 1:30 pm and had the logging road section of the drive. Once you reach Sultan, the road becomes gravel. There is no phone service for most of this drive. Google Maps was becoming very confused with directions and kept telling us to make turns down side roads. It just didn’t seem right.

With Google Maps telling us we had 4 more hours to the put-in, we decided to stop listening to it and use the map and Garmin GPS. Choosing to follow the main roads, the GPS lead us the proper way. Be sure to have a map downloaded and even a hard copy of a map to get to the put-in.

Once we reached Spanish Chutes we decided to drive a bit further down the road because there were reports of access directly into Spanish Lake via a small trail to the lake. This would avoid the first 500m portage. We did not come across this trail (I don’t think we drove far enough) so we headed back to Spanish Chutes and made camp on the southern side of the bridge, just off the logging road. There were people with trailers camped out at the marked campsites that were accessible from the road.

Day 1: Spanish Chutes to Bardney Lake (11.1 km)

Portages:

  • Portage 1: 500 m
  • Portage 2: 150 m

Excited to be on a trip, we got an early start to our day. We plopped the canoe in just off the side of the bridge and began the short paddle to the first portage. The water was nice and calm and the air was just getting warm.

The first portage was an easy 500m with a nice campsite at the end of it. It would be a good place to camp if you arrive mid-day at Spanish Chutes.

Once on Spanish Lake we instantly got stuck in a headwind. Trying our best to take cover behind islands and inlets we slowly made our way south across the lake. Paddling past the most southern site on Spanish Lake it looked like it would have been a nice site to stay at if we had found alternate access. Spanish Lake was littered with boulders along the shoreline and is also one of the headwaters for the Spanish River.

The next 150 m portage leading to Bardney Lake there was a slight uphill around a small dam. From the little inlet we paddled out and the moment we turned left around the corner the waves were already making it a difficult task and we weren’t even at the point that the lake opened up.

Approaching the wide-open lake we had to change up our plans. Instead of pushing ourselves to our goal of reaching Sulphur Lake, we had no choice but battle the headwinds to the only marked campsite on Bardney Lake, which was a small island smack in the middle of the open water. Whitecaps and rollers were far from ideal. With this being the only option we had we carefully and very slowly made our way to the campsite. 

Arriving was a mild sense of relief. We were out of the whitecaps but not out of the wind. Making it to camp so early in the day, we kept our spirits high with a swim, a couple of drinks and what we called “backcountry charcuterie”. Once the sun had set we began packing up for the night and happened to notice the moon rising up over the trees. We sat down by the water mesmerized by how large and bright it was. All night the moon was so bright I had to close the tent fly to stop it from shining directly in my eyes. Even then it illuminated the entire tent and was bright enough that you did not need to use a headlamp.

Campsite: This campsite is the only marked site on Bardney Lake. It was very exposed to the wind due to what looked like a past forest fire on the island. Most of the trees were dead and signs of burned roots on the ones standing. The ground was also quite dusty and dry. Suitable for 2, maybe 3 small tents at the most.

Day 2: Bardney Lake to Kashbogama Lake (20 km)

Portages:

  • Portage 1: 430 m
  • Portage 2: 200 m
  • Portage 3: 930 m
  • Portage 4: 90 m
  • Portage 5: 90 m

Waking up was rough, realizing the wind was still blowing strong. I tossed a sweater on and rolled out of the tent. It was a brisk morning but luckily the wind completely switched directions. Although it was still quite windy, I was thrilled to have a little bit of a push down the rest of Bardney Lake.  

All packed up and on the water, we were at the height of land portage in no time. Once crossed over this portage, all the water from here flows into the Mississagi River. We prepared for the steep 430 m climb. After this portage, there is a series of portages ahead making this one a warm-up. At the end of the 430 m portage, there is a visitor’s logbook hiding in a cat litter bucket for groups to sign. Based on the book there were only four other groups to paddle through here this year. 

Sulphur Lake has one campsite on it. Don’t let the name of the lake deter you, as this was a nice small lake. We made a quick lunch at the end of the portage to give us energy for the set of 4 portages back to back.

The quick paddle across took us to the 200 m portage to Surprise Lake. Along this portage, we followed moose tracks that seemed fairly recent.

The next one, the 930 m portage, would be the second-longest on the trip. Not just in length but with the obstacles along it. We came across a lot of large trees down across the trail making it quite the obstacle course with a heavy 60L food barrel on my back and leading our blind dog over and under down trees. Dumping our stuff halfway along the trail we split the portage in half to give us a well-needed break. About ¾ of the portage is inclined so breaks were necessary. 

Finally, this portage was over and we only had two short 90 m portages that were like pond hopping. We thought the worst was over until we arrived at the take-out on the first 90m portage. We saw the portage sign 15m away at the shoreline and nowhere else to get out except across a floating bog.

I tossed the food barrel onto my back and began walking across, sinking past my ankles every step. Then there was an open hole with some grass so I stopped and waited for Corey to bring the canoe over to put the gear back in the boat to get across the deep section. Corey urgently trucking across, he clearly didn’t wonder why I had stopped, but he continued to hustle through. On the first step, he sunk waist-deep into the bog. I had to laugh. The smell was awful and when I looked at my feet I had leeches on my ankles. Making it to where the portage actually starts, we dragged the canoe up and got the leeches off me. Right away we had to take out the saw to cut branches off a big tree that was down. It must have just fallen because no branches were broken and there was no way around it. This 90m was slower going than we hoped it to be. The second 90 m portage was a lot easier and we were happy to be out of the section of portage hopping.

The paddle across Mississaugi Lake we decided to get the fishing rods out and troll as we paddled across. Along this way, we caught a couple of bass while passing by the rocky points. Mississaugi Lake turns into Upper Green when you pass through a narrow S-bend. What a beautiful surprise Upper Green Lake was. As soon as it opens up there are beautiful sandy beaches along with cabins. We pulled off to the left shore and got out for a refreshing dip in the water. You could walk out about 20 m before the sand began to get deeper. It was a great place to stop for a little break. Unfortunately, it was a very quick break because it was around supper time and we had the goal to get to the campsite on Kashbogama Lake. 

There is a campsite on Upper Green Lake at the bottom of a hiking trail that takes you up to the fire tower. We decided not to explore this trail so we could get to camp earlier although I now wish we did check it out. We hustled past to get to the short portage leading to Kashbogama lake. This portage was nice and easy and for once clear of any fallen trees. 

Campsite: This campsite was located directly across from the last portage. It was a very spacious site with lots of room for tents. Although on a rocky point, there is shelter from the wind. This was one of my favourite sites on the trip.

Day 3: Kashbogama Lake to Bubble Bay (22.4 km)

Portages:

  • Portage 1: 300 m
  • Series of short portages around rapids and waterfalls, some rapids can be lined

This morning we got a late start to our day. We spent the morning enjoying the campsite and fishing off the shore. While fishing and sipping on coffee we heard really loud splashes from the bay to the west of the campsite. The splashes were so loud that they even startled our dog. While Corey was fishing, he managed to lose another lure so it was time to change the fishing line.

We finally got onto the water around 11 am. The first portage of the day was just a short paddle away. Here there are two options of portages. One is in a bay and is 300 m and the other you follow the creek to a 90 m. We found the 300 m first and decided to just take this portage. Although it was the longer option, it was very flat and one of the easiest ones of the trip. From this point, we had about 20 km of paddling ahead of us, with only a couple of small portages. 

There are small portages around impassable rapids and small waterfalls, which make great spots for fishing. At the bottom of the rapids between Limit Lake and Kettle Lake, we floated around for about 45 minutes fishing. Almost every cast you were able to reel in a fish. I caught the largest of the trip which was a 4lb bass. Although we were having fun it was time to keep paddling and we still have quite a distance to cover.

On the other side of Kettle Lake, there are two sets of rapids, neither of which we were able to be paddled. They were both quite rocky and narrow but both had portages to get around them. For the first set we decided to line, which was very straightforward. Getting to the second set we didn’t see the portage. On the map, it shows that its river left. Instead of wasting time portaging, we lined the canoe. This was quite a bit trickier than the first one. There is a narrow chute with a hole that we didn’t want the canoe to get stuck in. There were points when we were waist-deep in the water, slowly making our way down with caution. The bottom of this rapid fans out and becomes super shallow so we had to pick up the gear and canoe and carry them over to the end. The portage might have been easier, so keep your eye out for it before deciding to line. 

Approaching Upper Bark Lake, we started to get tired. Lining that last set of rapids was more work than we thought it was going to be. From this point, we had a straightforward paddle to get us to our campsite for the night. As soon as we turned the corner onto Upper Bark the winds began to pick up, giving us one last obstacle. Making it through the windy lake and down the little swift to Bubble Bay we had an interesting surprise. Paddling around the corner into Bubble Bay, there was a cabin on the right shoreline and a lovely couple outside barbecuing in their underwear. They were probably just as thrown off to see us as we were seeing them. With a friendly wave and a giggle we made it around the corner and back into the wind and powered through our last kilometre to the island campsite.

Campsite: This is a small island campsite with a couple of beautiful windswept pines. There are a couple of semi-flat spots for 2-3 small tents.

Day 4: Bark Lake/Bubble Bay to Mississagi River @ km 72 (20 km)

Portages:

  • Portage 1: 500 m
  • Portage 2: 200 m
  • Portage 3: 150 m

This morning waking up was exciting. We would be off the big lakes and headed down the river portion of the trip. On the water by 9:00 am, we wanted to beat some headwinds that were already starting to pick up. A short paddle from the campsite, the day started off with a quick lift over a beaver dam. We paddled through a narrow section that on the map states that if water is low this section can be muddy. We had no issues passing through here, we didn’t even encounter the marked lift over midway along this section. The 500 m portage had a couple of recently down trees but was relatively straightforward. 

The portage that decided to put up a challenge was the 100 m from the small pond to Middle Bark Lake. The portage was non-existent because of all the trees now covering it. We had to bushwack our way around it and create our own path. At the end of this portage, there is an old cabin there along with a new fishing camp. The old cabin on this now privately owned land is Grey Owl’s cabin. As we were hoping in the canoe a couple pulled up in a small tin boat that was staying at the fishing camp. They seemed shocked we made it through that portage because they walked through the portage the day before and couldn’t get to the other side.

Now we were making our way down the Mississagi River. Just through a swift, the lake narrows to a channel. Along this channel, we were trolling our fishing line behind us. Along this way, we caught a Pike and a nice size Walleye. It was near lunchtime, so we decided to keep the walleye to go with our lunch. We found a nice spot to pull ashore at the end of the Northwest Channel, just past “The Angle”. It looked like someone may have camped here once before due to the small fire pit made. This isn’t somewhere ideal to camp but it is possible if needed.

Just after, there was a series of swifts and a small rapid which can be scouted on river left, which were all easily navigable. It gives you a little taste of the river until you turn another corner and it opens up again. Paddling northwest in these open channels was difficult due to the headwinds, coming in that exact direction.

Our goal was to get to the rapids with the 150 m on river left. There are big rapids, with a large ledge at the start. On the map, it shows the campsite is at the start of the portage, but we did not see one. We portaged our gear to the bottom where we were pleasantly surprised by the campsite.

Campsite: This was my favourite site of the trip. Tons of flat space and wide-open rock. You are camping directly beside the rapids so it is quite noisy. In the springtime when the water is high, I imagine a large portion of the rock is covered. 

Day 5: Mississagi River @ km 72 to km 58 (12.1 km)

Portages:

  • Portage 1: 70 m
  • Portage 2: 60 m (we ran the rapids to avoid this portage)
  • Portage 3: Hellgate Portage, 680 m
  • Portage 4: 200 m

Notable Rapids:

  • Split Rock Rapid

We were finally in the heart of the river portion of this trip. We had a full day of swifts and rapids ahead. The first rapid we encountered was not marked on the map. It was an easy and straightforward rapid.

The next rapid there is a 70 m portage river left that we decided on taking. It was a steep drop almost like a small waterfall. The next set of rapids has a 60 m portage around. We were able to run them both, had a nice wave train to follow and the second there was a little more weaving involved. Coming across these easily runnable rapids had our stoke level high. We were having a blast on the water. 

Just a little further ahead we came to Split Rock Rapid. The portage is on river left and there is a campsite at the end of it. We walked the portage to scout the rapid and check out the campsite. This campsite is perched higher up on the rock with room for a couple of small tents. It would be a nice site because there is still easy access to water. Split Rock Rapid was straight forward and a neat rapid because it is a little gully with just one big rock almost dead centre in the middle of the rapid. We choose to take the left side of the rock. 

Prepare yourself for Hellgate Portage. This is a mandatory 680 m portage that goes around multiple sets of rapids and falls. It is steep up and down and we were portaging mid-afternoon when the sun was the hottest. At the beginning of the portage, you are able to walk over to see where the river narrows and loses elevation, fast creating Hellgate Falls. This is also where you would be able to camp according to the maps marked campsite but I would recommend staying at the end of the portage as there is a fire pit and well sheltered flat area that seems to have been already used. 

As we paddle on we came across 4 otters floating in the river. They were very curious and watched us paddle by. We think this is the same group of otters we saw riding the rapids at our last campsite.

Up next the map showed there was a 180 m portage, we got to where this was labelled and there was no rapid to be found. We started to notice the map wasn’t entirely accurate when we compared it to where we were on the Garmin GPS. We continued to paddle and finally came across what we thought was the correct rapid. This rapid is long (approximately 200 m) and very hard to scout. We got out RR to attempt to scout it out and find the portage trail. At first, the portage is not easily noticeable until you walk into the bush a little ways. As we walked the portage and climbed down towards the water we noticed the rapid was quite boney and not easily scoutable. We decided to portage our gear across. This portage was closer to 200 m or more, not 180 m.

The next three rapids were closer together than what is shown on the map. At the first rapid we instantly noticed a line so we scouted it from the canoe. The next two were back to back and around the bend so we hopped out on the portage to scout as well as check out the campsite at the end of the portage. These two rapids have individual portages that end up connecting.

The campsite at the end was not the most ideal; it was littered with downed trees and not well maintained. On our way back we saw what looked to be a bobcat run across the trail and our dog instantly puffed up.

Back at the boat, we decided to make our way down the somewhat boney rapids – if needed we could hop out and wade. During high water, I don’t imagine these becoming more than a CI tech. At the last rapid there was a sweeper RR that was still avoidable (take more caution in high water). Now we only had 1.5 km to go with one swift to our site for the night. We nearly missed this site due to the swift not being correctly marked on the map and the take-out being just after the swift.

Campsite:  There is a gravel ATV trail that leads up to the campsite. This site has ATV access so during busy times in the summer it may be occupied. There is a very large open area with a massive fire pit for bonfires and then off to the right, there is a perfect flat sheltered area. There is a ton of room for many tents but is not directly on the water.

Day 6: Mississaugi km 58 to Rocky Island Lake (35.5 km)

Our goal for yesterday was to get as close as we could to “The Maze” to begin our paddle through the wetlands as early as we could. This was in hopes of seeing some wildlife and having a fairly short day by staying at one of the campsites just on the other side. Being later in the season, the air in the morning was cool and the river was warm, creating a wonderful fog on this calm section of the river. 

This was a very beautiful section that had rolling hills and a calm windy river. As we entered The Maze, we did not even realize it other than it begins to open up and there is tall grass. During the spring the water levels can get so high that it is hard to navigate your way through the main channel. For us, The Maze was very straight forward and there was only one path to take.

It can take a while to get through here because you are constantly weaving and feel like you are going nowhere. In springtime, you may be able to sneak more of a straight line through the grass. The grass was so high that when you stood up in the canoe you could barely see above it. We didn’t get to see much for wildlife other than an awesome moment of watching a beaver swim under the canoe.

Leaving The Maze, the river narrows again. This is when we really began to notice the very low water levels. We paddled directly past the first campsite and couldn’t see any signs of it from the water. We continued to paddle and the next site was perched high up on a rock. We could see what looked to be a fire pit but there was zero chance of being able to get out of the canoe. My only thought was “who the heck would ever stay there?”

With campsites not looking appealing we decided this wouldn’t be a short day; now we planned to make it out to Rocky Island Lake and stay on one of the first few sites. Paddling down this last section of the river and out to the channel of islands that leads to the lake, the map showed sites all along the shoreline.

It felt as if we were back in The Maze, except there were sandbanks 10 feet high and just a narrow channel that weaved through. Comparing the map to the GPS we were paddling past all the campsites that were nowhere to be found. If we were to find a campsite we would have had to have climbed up the sandbank and walked 300m to where the shoreline should be. At first, leaving us confused, we began to realize how low the water actually was. Paddling past a rock face the usual water line was clearly shown on the rock, it was more than my paddle lengths lower than usual.

Getting out to Rocky Island Lake was more of a continuous windy river paddle than a lake paddle. Even once we reached the lake this seemed to continue. We had to imagine where the shoreline would be at normal water levels to navigate our way. Getting tired, we tried to find the most easily accessible campsite.

At the first site on Rocky Island Lake, we pulled over and we were about to unpack the boat until we looked around the campsite and noticed knives and saws hanging in the prebuilt shelter and fresh fish carcasses thrown along the shoreline. It almost looked as if someone had been living there and just recently left. There were definitely eerie vibes. All it took was one look at each other for us to hop back in the canoe and paddle another 2 km down this odd lake to the next campsite.

Not far ahead we ran into 2 locals, fishing off their tin boat. We asked them about what was happening with the water levels; they told us that a dam on this lake had been constructed causing water levels to drop more than 20 m. Finally, we had an explanation for the strange landscape. We continued our paddle to the next site where we were finally relieved to call it a day. But first, we have to climb from the shoreline with all our gear to the top of the rocks where the campsite was.

Campsite: This campsite would have been a lot nicer if the water was where it should have been. We had a super steep climb up to it but once you were up there it was just a big flat rock good for multiple tents, as well as potentially some good swimming.

Note: On recently updated Google satellite images, it now shows the effects of the low water levels on Rocky Island Lake which look even lower than our trip in 2021.

Day 7: Rocky Island Lake to Aubrey Lake (25.1 km)

With winds and rain in the forecast, we packed up and paddled against some ferocious headwinds. Today we only had one portage which was around the dam, so we had lots of paddling ahead.

Rocky Island Lake is exactly what its name is. It was a nice lake and very big, it would narrow into channels at certain points then open back up and be littered with islands. We took it easy paddling today and did some fishing along the way. We caught a couple of bass and a pike. We didn’t see anyone on this lake until we got closer to the dam, where there is also an alternative access point, and someone had a camper set up.

The portage around the dam is wide open and part of the service road. At the bottom of the dam, we walked out on some baseball-sized rocks to put the canoe into the water. Along here there were tons of crayfish so we tossed a couple of fishing lines in and were getting slammed by bass, one cast after another. 

The clouds began to roll in, so we hopped in the canoe and began our paddle to the last campsite of the trip. The plan was to paddle to the campsite closest to our take-out to make tomorrow’s paddle short. As we paddled past the first campsites marked on the map, we scanned them from the canoe and they both looked like they would be good places to stay. The paddle to our campsite took twice as long because we were catching so many fish along the way. It began to pour on us so we paddled as fast as we could to reach our site. 

Reaching the main section of Aubrey Lake it opens up to a long stretch of cliffs. Rain-causing fog covered the tops of the cliffs making it super beautiful and peaceful. On the first island, we found a small site where we could set up a tarp and hopefully escape the rain. It was cold rain so the rest of our night consisted of trying to stay warm and crawl into bed super early.

Campsite: This campsite has easy water access but is very small. Not a ton of flat area. Our two-person tent fit in one of the only not overly exposed areas. Beautiful scenery from this site but would not recommend it for large groups.

Day 8: Aubrey Lake to Aubrey Falls (5.7 km)

Portages:

  • Portage 1:

Our last day was a short paddle out which was nice knowing that we had a long portage around Aubrey Falls to get back to the car. When we dropped our car off at the endpoint, we decided to take a look at Aubrey Falls and scout out the portage while we did that. While we originally found the main hiking trail it was hard to find where the portage led to. 

When we arrived at the last of the portages we were eager to get back to the car. We decided to make this a one-trip portage and carry all our gear in one go. The first section of the portage is straightforward and easy to follow, but it is the midsection that got us turned around. There is a point where the portage trail looks like it splits and goes two different ways.

Based on where we were, we decided to try the right trail first. 50 m later, this was not the proper way, so we backtracked and took the left side which will take you down some loose rock towards the dam (be aware of your footing). Then back up a very steep portion which does not seem like it would be the right way. It took us back up to the viewing platform that we went to when checking out the falls the day we dropped off the vehicle. We made our way over to it and took a break. Carrying everything in one trip was fine except for when you are trying to find your way on steep terrain. From this point on, we followed the main trail back to the parking lot – but don’t forget to check out the amazing waterfall!

Reflections

Overall the trip went smoothly. The only issues we ran into were headwinds, low water and portages with tons of trees down. Prepare to be windbound, so give yourself a day or two of buffer time. In regards to the water levels being so low on Rocky Mountain Lake, this did not affect us until the lower section of the river.

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Author Bio

Kristen and Corey love venturing out into the backcountry with their dog Oliver. They continue to build their skills and push themselves further each and every trip. They enjoy the solitude of canoe trips, which they find themselves further into the backcountry each time. Finding the perfect balance between putting in a lot of distance in a day as well as catching lots of fish, is the key to most of their trips. 

Instagram: @kristennielsenn

Check out Kristen’s other report on the Steel River!

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