Temagami: Montreal River to Ishpatina Ridge (4 days / 68 km)

This iconic paddle through Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park is a must do on any adventurer’s bucket list. This out and back trip leads you to Ishpatina Ridge which is the highest point in Ontario standing at 693 meters.

Trip Completed: August 2021

Summary 

Starting Point: Montreal River Access Point 

Ending Point: Montreal River Access Point

Duration: 4 days

Total Distance: 68km

Number of Portages: 16

Difficulty: Intermediate 

Location

This route is located in north/west Temagami region. The trip starts on Crown Land and then the majority of the trip is in Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park. 

Tradition Territory: This route in Temagami is on the traditional territory of the Anishinabewaki, Cree and Omàmìwininìwag (Algonquin) (source).

Maps & Resources 

Guidebook: Temagami: A wilderness Paradise by Hap Wilson

Map: The adventure map Temagami North West, Friends of Temagami Adventure planning map, Jeff’s map Temagami

Campsite Reservations: All campsites are first come first serve.

Permits: Permits can be purchased online through the Ontario Parks Reservation System (select “Backcountry Registration” on the far right, and then select “Temagami-Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater” for the park and “Montreal River” for the access point.

Outfitters & Shuttles 

For this particular trip, we borrowed a friend’s canoe. However, on previous trips, I have rented canoes from Temagami Outfitters and they have amazing service and great canoe selection fit for every need!

Trip Report 

Day 1: Montreal River Access Point to Smoothwater Lake (14 km)

Distance: 14km, Portages: 0, Time: 3 hours

This morning we drove to the Montreal River/Beauty Lake Road Access Point to start our adventure. You will take a left turn onto Beauty Lake Road roughly 23 km past Elk Lake on the 560.  Beauty Lake Road is an active logging road so make sure to take precautions when driving. After about 35-40min along Beauty Lake Road you will reach a bridge that crosses the Montreal River.

Parking is on the left-hand side next to a boat launch where you can easily load and launch the canoe. Once my partner and I unloaded the car and packed up the canoe we were ready to launch at 1300! We started our paddle travelling upstream along the Montreal River. I was so excited to start the adventure the moderate current paddling upstream didn’t bother me.

On my Temagami 4 Northeastern Adventure Map (2011) there was one rapid marked on the map about 1 km from the access point without portages. When we reached the alleged rapid we found a narrowing to the river with a slightly rocky section, which may be what the map was referring to. It would be hard to imagine this as more than a swift in very high water. When we paddled the water was at a moderate level, we cleared the shallow waters easily however there were many colourful marks from previous canoes along the rocks at the bottom indicating it may be harder to navigate in low water and wading may be required.

Otherwise, the Montreal River is a beautiful windy river starting off narrow and then gradually opening up to a wider river and then into Lady Dufferin Lake. There are no rapids or portages along this section of the river. We saw one campsite which did not seem at all desirable. Camping along the shores is difficult as much of it is marsh. 

As you approach the end of the Montreal River you will pass Okiniada Creek on your right-hand side just before the river widens into Lady Dufferin Lake. Lady Dufferin Lake is a long and narrow lake with multiple bays to explore. We followed the left shore until we reached the cabin located on the northeast shore just before the entrance into Kenneth Lake.

At this cabin take a hard right turn down a narrow river towards Smoothwater Lake. You can also take the time to explore Kenneth Lake and Lamy Lake which branch off of Lady Dufferin. We opted to continue towards our campsite for the night. We did not see any campsites along the lake or the narrow river as it is very marshy. After a couple of kilometres down the short river, it opened up into Smoothwater Lake. This is one of your first opportunities to make camp for the night. Right where it opens up into the lake there are two campsites on the left-hand side.

We did not get out to explore these sites however they seemed nice and slightly more protected from the winds. Though, it is slightly marshy surrounding the area so it would not be ideal for swimming and is likely quite buggy. It is a good spot to stop for a break or camp if the winds on Smoothwater Lake are unmanageable. Near these campsites, you will also see a memorial on the left-hand side marked by a white cross.

When we entered Smoothwater Lake we had a manageable but strong headwind to contend with and battled through the waves to our campsite. We successfully reached our campsite in a bay marked by a kilometre-long beach. There were already campers at both the memorial campsite located at the portage into Marina Lake and the campsite on the other side of the bay, so we opted to stay on the north side of the beach where there are two campsites beside each other.

We stayed at the campsite which was the most east. We arrived at 1600. There was a lovely fire pit set up on the sand which we enjoyed and cooked sausages over for our first dinner. There were two nice cleared tent spots just at the edge of the forest which provided some shade over the tent. If you needed more tent sites you could easily set up along the sand. My partner and I enjoyed a nice long swim in the shallow clear water and had a wonderful sunset to end the night.

Campsite: Mainly sun. PROS: nice tent spots, good fire pit, beautiful beach sunsets, easy to load and unload the canoe, amazing swimming, thunderbox. CONS: some garbage around as it is definitely a popular site, biting sand flies, hard to get water without wading in, difficult to find bear hang as trees are dense. RECOMMEND: Yes.

Campsite Coordinates: 47.39874, -80.66682

Day 2: Smoothwater Lake to Mihell Lake + Day Trip to Ishpatina Ridge (13 km)

Distance: 13km, Portages: 6, Time: 4.5 hours to Mihell campsite

This morning we woke up at 0630 in anticipation of a long day. We packed up camp and enjoyed a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, launching our canoe at 0815. The 45 min paddle down Smoothwater Lake was serene with calm water and blue skies, a rare experience as it has a reputation for rough waters despite its name.

We then reached the first portage (840m) from Smoothwater Lake to Apex Lake. While it’s not an official campsite, you could camp at the north end of this portage if you needed.  The campsite is next to a marsh area and would be very buggy. This 840 m portage was the most difficult of all 8 portages that you need to travel in order to get to Scarecrow Lake. The portage consists of undulating hills and narrow passages through tall grass and bushes. We met a large rabbit who did not seem to mind that we were passing through and bounced around us as we continued along the portage. I would highly recommend a good bug net and bug spray as the mosquitos and black flies were relentless.

We then reached Apex Lake; it is a small lake, which you paddle to the other end of in order to reach the next portage. A very nice lake, although there were no obvious places to camp on this lake. The next portage, 1220m to unnamed lake #1, is the second-longest of the trip. While this portage is a long slog, the terrain is flat with a few muddy patches to navigate through, which would be more difficult if it was raining.

It is then a quick paddle across to a 70 m portage into unnamed lake #2. This feels like a short lift over after already covering over 2 km in portages. Then another short paddle to the other side to reach a 30 m portage into unnamed lake #3. The 30 m portage is quite muddy – make sure to watch for leeches on these portages! A short paddle down this lake led us to an easy 170 m portage into MucCulloch Lake. At the south end of this lake make sure to look west to get your glimpse of Ishaptina and the fire tower at the summit. 

Along the 170 m portage, we met a group of 6 men who had done the hike to Ishpatina and had stayed at a nice campsite on Mihell Lake. They suggested staying at this small island campsite and then doing a day trip out and back to Scarecrow Lake to climb Ishpatina. They had met other trippers who had stayed at the island campsite on Scarecrow Lake. They had said it was an okay site, only large enough for one tent and no thunderbox so unfortunately there was toilet paper strewn about the site. Please make sure to practice Leave No Trace Principles when camping.

After a short snack on MucCulloch Lake, we had an easy 120 m portage into Mihell Lake. We started to look for the site the group had recommended to us. The campsite is roughly halfway down the lake on a tiny island on the west side past the point. There is a small orange tent sign on the tree out front. We hopped out to check out the campsite which was beautiful! It had a great campfire set up and a beautiful new thunderbox. After setting up camp we enjoyed a nice lunch of salami, cheese, pitas and carrots. After some rest, rejuvenation and fuel we decided to head out for our afternoon trip to climb Ishpatina. 

Day trip: Distance: 7 km, Portages: 4, Time: 5hrs (including hike)

The weather report had predicted rain for the following day so we decided to push forward to complete the hike before the rain came and I was incredibly excited about the beautiful views at the top. We packed up a day pack with rain gear, snacks, water and other emergency equipment and set on our way.

We reached an easy portage of 130 m into unnamed lake #4. Just as we were about to launch I saw a leech stuck to the bottom of our canoe! I was thankful that it was stuck to the bottom of the canoe and not my leg. It was a quick paddle across unnamed lake #4 to reach the final and longest portage – a 1290 m portage into Scarecrow Lake.

Along this portage, we met other campers who were on a 20-day canoe trip, since we had a lighter load we offered to help carry some of their belongings. The portage was long but flat. We wished our new friends farewell and launched onto Scarecrow Lake. It was a short paddle to the start of the Ishpatina hike. The start of the trail is located just past Scarecrow Creek, this area is slightly cleared. There is a campsite just down 25 m from the start, connected by a trail which you could camp at. We did not investigate the campsite, however, it would not be a good site for swimming or collecting water as it was very shallow and weedy in the bay. It took us 1hour and 12m from our campsite on Mihell Lake to the start of the Ishpatina hike, carrying our light pack and canoe. 

I had read in my research that years earlier there had been a root fire at this location which caused the clearing at the start of the hike and is now filled with tall grasses. There is a small blue hiker sign at the start of the trail. We also noticed that Scarecrow Creek travels right from Mihell Lake to Scarecrow Lake avoiding the long portage. A friend of mine had attempted to paddle the creek mid-October and spent the majority of their time walking through cold water pulling the canoe. It did look shallow and narrow, and since we were crunched for time, we opted for the portages. However, the adventuring soul in me would have loved to attempt to navigate down the creek had time allowed. 

Ishpatina Ridge Hike: Distance: 7km, Time: 2.5 hours

This hike is 7 km round trip and took us 2.5 hours to complete with a 45 minute rest at the top. The start of the hike is easy with some rolling hills and you will quickly reach Bottom Lake. Here we saw a flock of grouse mating right in the middle of the path and they did not seem to care that we were there and continued about their business while we waited patiently and admired their mating rituals.

After Bottom Lake, the trail starts a slow steady uphill hike with a few steep sections. The next lake you will reach is Steep Lake where we crossed a beaver dam hopping log to log to get across the marshy area. The hike continued as a steady uphill with a few steep sections, and we eventually reached the third and final lake, Halfway Lake (which is more than halfway along the hike). Here you could refill waters and we saw a small path diverging from the trail leading you to the edge of the lake.

The last section to the top is quite steep. We made it to the top of Ishpatina in 1hr. It was a welcome view as we emerged from the bush to see the iconic Ishpatina fire tower. The area around the top has tall trees so we climbed up the first set of ladders of the fire tower to see the incredible view. This day the view was quite hazy as the smoke from the northern Ontario wildfires had blown in.

The fire tower ladder is bent up to deter people from climbing to the top and since the foundation did not look too secure and we were without a spot device, so we didn’t need much convincing to stop climbing up. You definitely don’t need to go to the top to enjoy the incredible views Ishpatina has to offer. You could easily camp at the top if you wanted to, however, there is nowhere close to gather water. I have also heard that some people climb up the tower and camp in the fire tower, and if it’s windy you can feel the fire tower sway in the wind.

We spent 45 minutes at the top, enjoying a snack, water and taking lots of pictures. A very cool experience to be at the top of Ontario! The total elevation is 693 m and during the hike, you gain about 300-400 m in elevation. The way back down took 50 minutes for a total of 2.5hrs round trip. We are relatively fast hikers so I would make sure you plan your timing according to your own hiking abilities.

We then paddled back in reverse through the long portage and small unnamed lake #4 into Mihell Lake to make it back to our campsite by 1900. We then enjoyed a much-needed swim in Mihell Lake to wash off the layers of sweat, sunscreen and bug spray. We had a nice campfire and cooked macaroni and cheese with refried beans. As we were cleaning up I proceeded to accidentally dump the bucket of dishwater all over myself, soaking my sleeping clothes. We had a good laugh as I attempted to dry off by the fire. We then set up the tarp in preparation for the rain forecasted and secured all of our belongings before heading to bed. 

Campsite: PROS: Great campfire, good for a hammock, thunderbox, okay swimming, great spots to hang tarp, easy water filling. CONS: Okay tent spots (two nice flat spots closer to the thunderbox), hard canoe launch, difficult to find bear hang as trees are dense. RECOMMEND: YES

Campsite Coordinates: 47.30495, -80.71516

Day 3: Mihell Lake to Smoothwater Lake (13 km)

Distance: 13km, Portages: 6, Time: 4hours

We had decided not to set an alarm this morning as we thought the rain was going to start early and we planned for a restful day at camp. I woke at 6)) to go to the washroom and by 605 the rain had started. I was happy about my good timing. We fell back asleep and woke again at 745 and the rain had already stopped. I emerged from the tent to see what the weather held for us and it looked like it was starting to clear up. We decided to break camp in the late morning after a breakfast of oats and coffee. By 1030 we were on our way.

The first portage was the 120 m into MucCulloch Lake, the south end/start of the portage is very sandy and would be hard to paddle in low water and the take-out is a large muddy area. There is a campsite at the north end of this portage which looked nice and flat with a thunderbox however I can imagine it to be quite buggy as it is beside a marshy area. The put in for the canoe was a nice and sandy beach easy to launch from.

We then paddled down McCulloch Lake to the 170 m portage to unnamed lake #3.  You could camp at the north end of the portage if you needed to, though it is not a designated campsite so there is no thunderbox. However, the site was relatively flat and we also saw remnants of a campfire.

We then suitcase carried the canoe over the 30 m portage to unnamed lake #2 and the 70 m portage to unnamed lake #1. We then took a long break at the start of the 1220 m portage to mentally prepare ourselves for the last two long portages of the trip. It is a nice spot to take a break as the boulders provide perfect seats and the light breeze kept the bugs away. We could feel the wind start to pick up over the day so I was interested to see what the waves on Smoothwater Lake had to offer us. The 1220m portage was again flat, buggy with few muddy sections, and the 880 m portage was very buggy with rolling hills and careful footing is required to not trip. 

We then came to Smoothwater Lake, emerging from the small bay where the portage is located and paddling out to the wider lake section. We were lucky as the wind was going the same direction as us – when does this ever happen on a canoe trip! The waves were a good size and I was very thankful after a long day to not be paddling against them. We surfed the canoe into the campsite on the outcrop of gravel along the peninsula on the south side of the sandy bay.

All of the other campsites in the bay were already taken by other trippers. The wind was welcomed as it kept all of the bugs away. We then had a beautiful afternoon relaxing at camp, reading in the hammock, swimming and eating snacks. For dinner we had a nice campfire looking out to watch the sunset behind the island and had dinner of veggie fried rice. The box recommended making 1/3c of the dried rice however my partner was hungry and did not believe it would be enough so we ended up making 1c and could have fed a small army. 

Campsite: PRO: nice place to swim, campfire pit on both sides so could pick side depending on the wind, nice sunset view, good thunderbox, easy to collect water, ok bear hang opportunity. CON: difficult to hang a tarp, not many hammock sites, only fit one or two tents comfortably, mice at campsite. RECOMMEND: Yes, if not raining.

Campsite Coordinates: 47.39245, -80.66841

Day 4: Smoothwater Lake to Montreal River Access Point (14 km)

Distance: 14km, Portages: 0, Time: 3hours

This morning we woke up at 0730. It was already windy and felt like it would be picking up as the day went on. So, we decided to get a move on while the waves were still manageable. Breakfast was breakfast wraps filled with scrambled eggs (we used dehydrated eggs), salami and maple syrup with coffee and hot chocolate (also delicious with pre-cooked bacon).

We packed up camp and were on the water by 900. It was a north wind coming directly head-on and the waves continued to grow in size. Proper technique and strong paddling got us across Smoothwater Lake without any issue. We then ducked into the cove with the memorial as the water was nice and calm, for a water break. We continued back down the short windy river section connecting Smoothwater Lake to Lady Dufferin Lake. Once we entered Lady Dufferin Lake we paddled a short distance to the cabin which was straight ahead and took a sharp left turn to paddle the length of Lady Dufferin to reach the Montreal River. Lady Dufferin Lake was windy however, the waves were much more manageable as it is a smaller lake. 

Down the Montreal River, we paddled with the current which was a welcome change of pace having just contended with the infamous waves of Smoothwater Lake. We savoured the last few kilometres paddling down the river, taking our time and having plenty of water and snack breaks along the way. The sun was shining with us, there were a few clouds and temperatures were low 20s. We then reached the bridge marking the end of our adventure. As we were taking out our canoe the 6 men we had met on the portage into MucClloch Lake were also ending their trip. We all chatted about the trip, and various adventures as we packed our belongings. They had left beer in the car and were nice enough to share one with us so we all had a drink to celebrated the end of the trip. 

Reflections 

Temagami has always been one of my favourite places to adventure and explore. Ishpatina did not disappoint. The beautiful scenery along the lakes and top of Ishpatina peak was worth every mosquito. We were very thankful for our bug nets and bug spray through the portages, even in late August the mosquitos and blackflies were relentless. I would highly recommend staying at a closer campsite such as the one on Mihell Lake and doing a day trip out to Ishpatina, especially if you don’t plan on exploring further down into Woods Lake. 

As with every backcountry trip, there are many things to learn and challenges to go through. One of the things we learned was leeches are definitely a real possibility along the portages and smaller lakes. With the portages, they would have been considerably more difficult had it been extremely wet or raining during the time we were there. Many portages could be very muddy and I had read other trip reports stating they had sunk in the mud up to their knees on some of the portages. I would also recommend taking a day to paddle out to Mihell Lake and then a separate day to hike Ishpatina. Doing both made for a very long tiring day. 

A side trip I had wished we had done is to hike the portage out to Marina Lake.  Marina Lake is supposed to be a beautiful oasis to paddle around. The campsite at the bottom has been known as the Kirsch memorial campsite, which is supposed to be a nice place to camp however, we spoke to other trippers who said there was some garbage around it. Another thing to factor in is the wind on Smoothwater Lake. As with any big lake, it is important to factor in wind days as we experienced very windy conditions on day 3 that may keep people windbound. We had factored in 5 days to complete the trip, however, with the sun on our side and rainclouds looming nearby we were keen to finish in 4 days.  

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Author Bio 

Written by Stephanie Rider

I grew up on an island in Muskoka, spending days canoeing, hiking, swimming and exploring. I have enjoyed canoe tripping my whole life and am an avid outdoor enthusiast. My passion for the environment leaves me with the motto to not only follow leave no trace principles but to also leave nature a little bit cleaner then when I found it. Through my trips I hope to highlight this point and help educate others on sustainable outdoor etiquette. I love writing about my adventures and hope to provide insights, inspire and encourage others to explore nature. 

Trip Blog: https://trippingandtequila.wordpress.com/ 

Instagram: @stephrider

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