Spanish River: Duke Lake to Agnew Lake (7 days / 145 km)
The Spanish River is an iconic heritage river north. From Duke Lake and Biscotasing Lake, it flows south, meeting at The Forks before continuing south to empty into Georgian Bay. This gives the river a ‘Y’ shape and means you can either paddle the East Branch or the West Branch, which share similarities but offer two different experiences.
We paddled the East Branch from Duke Lake to Agnew Lake over 7 days. We experienced beautiful scenery and a variety of campsites, some whitewater and only one real portage. Overall it was a fantastic trip and here is the report!
Trip Completed: June – July 2021
Starting Point: Duke Lake
Ending Point: Agnew Lake Lodge
Total Distance: 149 km
Duration: 7 days / 6 nights
Difficulty: Beginner (suitable for beginner whitewater paddlers with sufficient canoe tripping experience, as all major rapids can be portaged around)
This route takes place in Spanish River Provincial Park. The put-in on Duke Lake is a 1.5-hour drive from Sudbury, the nearest city and a good place to stop if you need to pick up any last minute gear or groceries. The take-out on Agnew Lake is an hour from Sudbury and a short drive to the small town of Espanola.
Traditional Territory: This route passes through the traditional territory of Cree, Anishinabewaki, Michif Piyii (Métis) and Mississauga (source).
Maps & Resources
Guidebook: No guidebook was used.
Map: Chrismar Adventure Map – Spanish River. The map has a lot of details about route planning and features along the river, however, it doesn’t have the rapids classified.
Campsite Reservations / Permits: It is necessary to do a backcountry camping registration through Ontario Parks. When you complete the registration, you’ll be able to select which ‘Zone’ you plan to camp in each night. The river is divided into five zones, and this route passes through zones Campsite reservations are not required. All sites are first come first serve.
Outfitters & Shuttles
Outfitter: This was a guided trip hosted by MHO Adventures. They provided most of the equipment (including the canoes) and two guides to lead the group. It’s definitely not necessary to go with a guide, however, we chose to use a guide because we had inexperienced whitewater paddlers in the group.
Shuttle: We parked our cars at Agnew Lake Lodge (contact them ahead of time and for a fee, you can leave your car and keys with them during your trip). MHO Adventures provided the shuttle to the start of the East Branch (at Duke Lake). The distance between the put-in and the take-out is about 2.5 hours, so it would be feasible to do a self-shuttle. There is parking at Duke Lake Access Point, although your car will be unattended while you’re on the river.
Trip Report: Spanish River East Branch
Day 1: Duke Lake to Sixth Lake (16 km)
Our day started at 7:30 am, right outside the town of Espanola. After refuelling the car and picking up Tim Horton’s breakfast sandwiches, we drove the 30 minutes to Agnew Lake Lodge. Once at the lodge, we met the rest of the group and went over gear. Everything was loaded onto a pickup truck and trailer with three canoes strapped in. There was a place to park the cars and we gave the keys to reception – they would be storing our cars for the next seven days.
We left Agnew Lake Lodge around 9:30 am and began the drive to the put-in. The drive took about 2.5 hours and was entirely on the highway (first east on Highway 17, and then north on Highway 144). Duke Lake has two boat launches next to one another. The one further south is a little more developed, with more space to park and a gravel runway to launch a motorboat. We put in at the more northern boat launch but ended up moving the truck to the other launch before paddling.
Paddling on Duke Lake was straightforward. The lake is long, though it isn’t very wide. There was absolutely no wind on the lake, though even if there had been wind I don’t think the lake is big enough to cause any boats to become windbound.
There are ten lakes in between Duke Lake and Expanse Lake, all connected by short swifts (each less than 100 m long). The first lake after Duke is Tenth Lake, and the lake names count down all the way to First Lake. Tenth Lake was a little smaller than Duke Lake but looked pretty identical.
Supposedly, there are small pictographs on Ninth Lake though we were unable to find them. We paddled along the eastern shores, thoroughly examining each cliff face and exposed piece of granite. No luck. Despite not finding the pictographs, Ninth Lake was still the best place we paddled that day. The exposed rock was beautiful and the water was so still it looked like a perfect mirror.
Our original place had been to camp at one of the two campsites at the end of Ninth Lake, however, the first one looked pretty dismal and the second one was taken. We paddled on. The Chrismar Adventure Map from 2001 had a campsite labelled halfway through Seventh Lake, but we arrived on the lake to find there was no longer a campsite there (the newer 2009 Chrismar Adventure Map does not show a campsite on Seventh Lake). Both maps had a campsite labelled at the end of Seventh Lake, but again, there was no campsite to be found. Now on Sixth Lake and exhausted, we chose the first campsite that was free: a site on River Right at km 129.
Campsite: This was a bad campsite – in hindsight, we should have paddled 500 m more and camped on the site on River Left, which was much nicer. Our campsite was quite grassy and buggy, with sufficient room for three tents. It was clearly overgrown and was not a common campsite to stay at (probably because the nicer one is such a short distance away). The put-in was sandy with a little mud; I still swam, but most people would probably pass. The thunderbox was nice, however, it was up an incredibly steep hill.
The saving grace was that we had an amazing dinner: steak or corn-on-the-cob cooked over the fire, with asparagus and cabbage salad.
Day 2: Sixth Lake to Expanse Lake (20 km)
We woke up to light rain and were on the water around 9:00 am. We paddled the remainder of Sixth Lake, and then the subsequent Fifth, Fourth and Third lakes. The “swifts” in between the lakes were non-existent.
After a few more kilometres of paddling, we passed through Third Lake to Second Lake, and between these two lakes, there was a larger swift and a moment of mid-morning excitement. We paddled under an old logging bridge which was supposed to have another swift, but sadly only had flat water. Never fear so a few hundred meters or so later we came across another short swift.
Admittedly, by this point I was dying for an actual rapid, so thankfully one appeared shortly thereafter. Our first rapid of the trip was Cavana Rapid, a short and rocky rapid with a little curve to the left that brought us into First Lake. To exit the first lake we had to paddle through Drive Road Rapids, a shallow bump-and-grind CI that lasted about 1.5 km.
Next up was Breadner Swift, which was also shallow but had enough water to allow the canoe through without grinding. There’s an island at the start of the swift and we found the River Right channel to be deeper and easier to navigate. The campsite in between Drive Road Rapids and Breadner Swift was nice, though we didn’t camp here.
By this point, it was 1:30 pm and we’d reached Expanse Lake. The first campsite on the lake was really nice and we stopped here for lunch. We were tempted to call it a day, as this is the site we’d intended to camp at, but the weather had cleared up and everyone was in good spirits. Expanse Lake is really long and one of the widest lakes on the Spanish River, so a headwind would be really unfortunate.
As such, we finished lunch and hopped back in our boats. Expanse Lake was quite beautiful, with some really nice exposed rocks. The water was so calm that the boats reflected perfectly in the water like it was made of glass. We paddled six kilometres to the last site on Expanse Lake.
Campsite: We stayed at the last campsite on Expanse Lake, around km 109 on River Right. The site was pretty nice; there was enough space for four tents and there was a great beach for swimming. The firepit was good and the trees were spaced such that we could build a really nice tarp. One drawback was that the thunderbox wasn’t great. The trail to the thunderbox was way better than the night before, but the thunderbox was pretty full and plants were very overgrown all around it.
The first and third campsites on Expanse Lake were both really nice; the second campsite was also nice, but not nearly as much as the other two. That said, there may be a trail from the second site to the cliff-top lookout nearby (the map has a dotted line from the campsite to a little symbol that looks like it would represent a view).
Day 3: Expanse Lake to The Splits (27 km)
Despite the dreary forecast, we woke to no rain. We were offsite around 8:40 am. Leaving Expanse Lake meant we were just about finished the East Branch of the Spanish River; by the end of the day, we’d have met with the West Branch.
First on the docket was Kingfisher Swifts, which last over 2 km and take you right to The Forks. I love flying down long stretches of swifts. Unfortunately, low water meant there was a lot more pushing than flying; we regularly beached on rocky sections, requiring us to get out and kick of the river bed to get us moving again.
The Forks was a nice section and by this point, we had clear blue skies. Since this is where the East and West branches meet, it’s the first time the East Branch encounters the train tracks. We paddled south, eating snacks and watching the train tracks to see if a train might come by. Apparently, the conductors get quite excited when they see canoeists.
After about 3 km, we arrived at Upper Athlone Rapids and Lower Athlone Rapids. Upper Athlone was first; it was a long-ish CI rapid and we scouted from the shore. Once paddling, it was mostly a straight line down the river right side, with two major rocks to avoid.
We had lunch at the start of the portage trail around Lower Athlone, scouting the rapid when we were finished eating. Another long CI, it wasn’t much of a straight shot of the previous rapid, but it was still easy to follow.
From here on we had ~7 km, a series of small swifts and then two rapids, as we headed toward The Flume and Sheahan (the next two train stops). All of this could be scouted from the boat. The first rapid, Railway Rapids, was long and a little rocky, but mostly very chill. The second rapid, Bridge Rapid, was very short with a slight drop under the bridge. Here a CN train passed us, the conductor honking the horn and waving at us.
Three kilometres down, the swifts picked up right after Pogamasing, quicker in succession but still not big. They were rocky, but even with low water, it wasn’t shallow enough to bottom out the canoe. Around km 80 we decided to call it a day and set up camp.
Campsite: We camped at a site until downriver to Pogamasing Access Point and slightly upriver to The Splits. There is an individual site near the access point, and it looked decent, however, there are a pair of two campsites further downriver (km 82) that are better. Between the two in the pair, choose the first one – it is amazing.
The campsite is huge with a small rocky ledge to pull the canoes up. There are tons of flat areas for tent spaces, a great fire pit and the right apart of tree-covered (enough to be cozy, but some spaces for a breeze to come through and manage the bugs). If you follow the trail to the other campsite, they have a much better swim spot – a small, white sandy beach with a small bit of current. From the campsite you can hear running water – across the river, there is a small creek falling into the river.
Day 4: The Splits to Zig Zag Rapids (23 km)
This was a pretty boring day. We were off the site by 9:15 am and immediately entered a shallow sandy part. The whole area around the previous campsite is called The Splits – here the river widens and the water gets braided, flowing in a few different streams around a shallow sandy floor. If you paid attention, there was always enough water to not get stuck.
The first rapid of the day was Cliff Rapids. It was a chill rapid, though we did scout it. We hung river left – watch for a few rocks at the end. Although this was a fairly uneventful section of the river, I found it quite beautiful. It was marshy and sandy along the shoreline, with tall trees growing from the river banks. The campsite right before Cliff Rapids looked nice.
Spanish Lake was pretty and didn’t take long to travel (wow, so much lake travel for a river). The first campsite looked nice, but it had a steep landing and a questionable swim spot. We kept going.
Campsite: At 3:30 pm, we found a campsite just upriver to Zig Zag Rapids, around km 59. This is an amazing site – huge, with space for four or five tents, and a beautiful view from the firepit. There was a good swim spot (a little rocky but fine if you bum slide in).
Day 5: Zig Zag Rapids to Cedar Rapids (18 km)
This was a big day (and definitely my favourite). We started with Zig Zag Rapids, a pretty technical CI. There is an obvious V, but a few sharp turns to make.
Then there were a lot of swifts – including Tofflemire Rapids which felt like more a swift than a CI to me – before The Knuckle. We got stuck on some shallow sound around here and, in my determination to push us off without my dad getting out of the boat, I kicked too hard and set the boat free… while also launching my body into the river. So I swam throughout the last bit of the swift. The Knuckle isn’t marked as a swift, but it had some sharp current to it.
After The Knuckle, the river widened and there were a few rock islands scattered about. It was hard to find deep channels and we had to walk the boat a few times. We hung river right the whole time, but I think river left would have been better. We also passed The Elbow around here, one of the common access points.
The next rapid we encountered was Little Graveyard Rapid. We ran the top part of it (center-left to center, eddy out river right) and carried the canoes over a rock by the shore to avoid the big ledge at the bottom. The ledge has a gnarly hole and shouldn’t be paddled.
Shortly after, we hit Big Graveyard Rapids which is a mandatory portage. Miraculously, it was our only portage of the trip. The portage is only 100 m and is well marked, wide and easy to follow. There were a couple of big steps along the trail (be careful when carrying the canoe).
After a few minutes of paddling, we came to The Cascades, which has a big ledge and probably shouldn’t be run. We lined on the river right side. There was a campsite off the portage trail here that looked pretty nice.
About 1.5 km later we arrived at our final rapid of the day: Agnes Rapid. This one was a bit of a trickster. For the most part, the rapid was a technical CII – minimal gradient and water volume (though it was low-ish water for us), and tons of boulders to bypass. However, at the end of the rapid, there is a bit pointy wall of rocks acting like a gate between you and the calm water below. In high water, I don’t think you’d be much affected by the rock gate. There was one tiny opening (kind of) in the rock gate, so we still ran the rapid, but we were very close to tipping. In the video below, you can see Agnes Rapids starting at 9:26.
Shortly after Agnes there was an unmarked CI with quite a high volume and a submerged rock – watch out for it.
We had intended to camp at Cedar Rapids, but thunder in the distance forced us to camp at a site two kilometres upstream of Cedar Rapids.
Campsite: The campsite was on River Right around km 41, right before Cedar Rapids. The take-out was absolutely brutal: 2/3 of the landing is on a steep, smooth rock shooting up the campsite at a 45-degree angle. The other 1/3 of the landing is mud and obstructed by trees. Considering the rain was starting, the rocks were slippery and it was a real challenge getting the boats unloaded.
After the boats were unloaded, we started setting up the tarp and collecting firewood. Suddenly there was a HUGE simultaneous crackle of thunder and a bolt of lightning. Immediate downpour. We all grabbed our life jackets and headed into the forest to spread out among small trees. It took about 20 minutes for the storm to pass.
The rest of the evening was quite pleasant. We finished setting up camp and the guides made us hot chocolate and a lovely dinner. It rained on and off, but it was much softer than it was before. I even went for a swim (the swim spot was bloody terrible – lots of slipping – but the water was nice). A couple of boats passed by, seeking out a campsite now that the storm had passed.
Day 6: Cedar Rapids to Agnew Lake (33 km)
We were a bit slow getting on the water this morning, largely due to the time it took to load canoes at such a sharp angle. One of the guides attached a throw rope to the boats and a tree, so at least they would stay put while we loaded them.
Our first rapid, Cedar Rapids, was long. The first section we scouted but it was pretty easy. There was an obvious line on river right, though a few big rocks to handle. The rest of the rapid was a mix of CI and CI tech. According to the map, there isn’t a portage around this rapid.
After Cedar, we had some paddling before Royal Run, which is a stretch of 5 km of swifts. We moved quickly, although a lot of swifts were quite shallow. Eventually, the swifts stopped and the new task at hand was trying to get down the river without constantly beaching the canoe on shallow rocks / sand (damn you, low water levels!). It wasn’t all bad though – we had a tailwind and I clocked us going ~6 km/h with the wind and current.
The section between km 30 and km 20 was nondescript, but Reynold’s Creek and the campsite (apparently a very nice one) were obvious. We had lunch a little before km 20. After Reynold’s Creek there were a couple of swifts, but no CL rapids.
We were supposed to camp at Wakonassin River, around km 16, and it looked like a decent campsite. But it was still early in the day so we pushed on to km 9. This final section had to swift, rapids or anything of note besides some islands.
Campsite: Our last campsite was located where the Spanish River widens into Agnew Lake, around km 8. We also checked out the campsites at km 11 and km 7, determining that km 8 was the best one. The take-out was flat and easy to use. The site was in a huge grassy field (do a tick check!) so the tent spots were very flat and soft. There was a fire pit and plenty of trees to construct a tarp. Eagle Rock was visible, though there wasn’t a great viewpoint, especially for photos. The thunderbox was new and very clean, and there was a decent swim spot although it was a little muddy.
Day 7: Agnew Lake to Agnew Lake Lodge (8 km)
We awoke to a beautiful, blue-bird day. The sun was shining, the temperatures were rising and we had a very short paddle ahead of ourselves.
Realistically, you could easily skip camping on Agnew Lake and push the final 8 km to the end. Just beware that Agnew Lake can be deceptively long and is a slow paddle if you catch a headwind. Lucky for us, we caught a strong tailwind and flew down the lake.
From the southbound flowing river, Agnew Lake first directs south before veering to the east. If you’re taking out at Agnew Lake Lodge as we did, the lodge is located along the southern shore around the point where the lake turns from south to east. As you paddle south, you’ll see what you think is the lodge but this isn’t the dock to take out – paddle further south toward the west of Rock Island and the dock will be on your right.
East Branch vs West Branch: The West Branch has significantly better whitewater paddling (rapids are larger and more numerous). So if you are a keen whitewater paddler, definitely choose the West Branch over the East Branch. However, the East Branch is much more accessible since you can drive to the Duke Lake Access Point. Most of the access points on the West Branch require taking the train from Sudbury. This would be a cool experience, although it will require more planning on your part.
Beginner Whitewater River: I think the East Branch would be an excellent river for novice whitewater paddlers. The first few days are primarily lake travel, as you paddle from Duke Lake to Expanse Lake. There are a few small swifts in between the lakes, but they are very short and without obstacles. After Expanse Lake, there are a handful of CI and CI tech rapids, some of which have portage trails. There are only three CII rapids, all of which can be portaged around.
Very Few Portages: As you’ll have read in the trip report, this route has very few portages. Our group felt comfortable lining/lifting over two sets that would have required short portages. There was only one rapid (Big Graveyard Rapids) that required a portage. That said, most groups will likely need to portage around Agnes Rapids, or at least line over the last ledge (as this was very difficult to paddle).
Mikaela is the voice behind Voyageur Tripper, an outdoor adventure blog that enables people to improve their skills in the backcountry. She previously worked as a wilderness guide, leading trips in Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut. Mikaela is also the founder and operator of Trip Reports.
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