During the early days of COVID when we were all stuck at home, I spent some of the downtime dreaming of river trips and places to explore. As a parent of young children, long stretches of time away from the family and tight budgets make many of the western staples impossible for me these days. I drew an imaginary 12-hour driving radius from my home in southwest Virginia to see what kind of places were within a reasonable striking distance.There are plenty of multi-days in eastern Ontario and Quebec that fit the bill, but I became particularly drawn to the north shore of Lake Superior. It’s a 14 hour drive from home, and the length and logistics of some of the rivers up there were a good fit. For my first trip to the region, I felt like the Dog would be a great introduction to the rivers of the area. While enjoying a wet summer weekend paddling creeks with friends, I talked everyone’s ear off about rallying a trip and a mighty crew was assembled.
Access Logistics and Shuttle
River access to the put in is very simple. Hiring a shuttle driver through Naturally Superior Adventures in Wawa, Ontario, was easy and affordable, and we were able to take out at their main lodge on Lake Superior. The drive from the take out to the put in was a simple 90 minute drive. You read that right: a 90 minute drive gives you a 5 day wilderness paddle.
We had thought reading the water levels would be rather simple, but our trip was the exception to the rule. There is no gauge on the Dog, and everyone uses the Pukaskwa (pronounced Puck-a-saw) as a corollary. It is recommended that 5.0m-4.5m on the Pukaskwa gauge would be ideal for kayaking.
However . . . . .
In the ten days before we put on, the region had a large rain event which caused some big snow melt and high water events on all the rivers in the region. We considered altering our plans, but as fast as the rivers peaked, they dropped. The day we put on, it was reading 4.95, and had dropped to 4.3 when we took off. Locals said it would be perfect. However, the Dog was really really high – significantly higher than one of the videos that claims the highest descent. It is my theory that the high water event that preceded our trip filled up the watershed on the Dog, which is much larger than the Pukaskwa and it holds onto its water much longer. In a normal year (with normal weather preceding the trip) I imagine the correlation would hold pretty well (but I make no promises).
There is one visual gauge near the top of the Dog that could be used, although we have no information about what would be an appropriate river level. There is a set of old bridge pillars a few KMs down from our put in. When we paddled past them, the water was pretty close to lapping the top of the center pillar. It would be possible to drive further past the put-in to check the old bridge pillar if you were concerned about the level. You could put in there, or head back up to the normal put in for some nice miles of warm up paddling.
During our few days out in the middle of May, we experienced all kinds of weather, except for snow. However, it did get below freezing one night. For the most part, we had blue skies and relatively warm temperatures. It was in the low 60s during the day, and between 30-40 at night. We wore pogies a lot of the time. It drizzled a bit here and there, and actually rained our last night camping on the lake. Rainy weather on the river is annoying, but bad weather on the lake could leave you stranded till it dies down. High winds can make forward progress very difficult and should be taken into account when preparing for the trip. Be prepared to be stuck on the lake for an extra day! Lake Superior can get storms that produce 20ft waves, it’s nothing to mess with.
Permitting and Rules
While the river flows through Nimoosh Provincial Preserve, there do not seem to be any regulations while in the backcountry except for fishing regs. It is always recommended to follow leave no trace practices and clean up after yourself. For a full explanation of the park regs, see:
There are a few man-made landmarks along the upper stretch of the river. There is a massive gold mine in the area, and the dirt roads you drive in are immaculately maintained to get work crews and semi trucks into the mine. There are also various fishing cabins in the headwater lakes on the way to the put in. You will see dirt roads near the river for a bit, and it flows through an old set of bridge pillars as described in the previous section. After about 15 KMs (?) the river passes under some big power lines and a new bridge. After that, there is nothing except the river, forests and mountains.
Along the river, it was a bit tricky to find good campsites. You will see a few rock fire rings along the lower section of river, but they are rare and it’s pretty easy to make your own camp as needed. At our water level, there were no grand sand/cobble beaches in the river corridor. The forests in the region are very very dense. The best openings in the forest are where there are rock mounds, so we always kept an eye open for those spots, but never found any good ones when we were actually ready to camp at the end of the day. Every campsite required a little pruning to make room for ourselves. This is contrasted by the glorious campsites on large beaches along Lake Superior. Some of them even have nice big fire rings and somewhat maintained pit toilets (especially at the mouth of the Dog).
On the Water
The river has a variety of features and qualities, changing from big water maelstroms to tight channelized boulder moves. You’ll experience still lakes and marshes that you can get lost in, as well as fast moving currents over cobble beds. Also, don’t forget the actual lake paddle on Lake Superior to finish it off.
The river itself is often written about from the perspective of ‘adventurous’ canoers who go through lots of ‘character building’ portages. I could imagine going in at low summer flows in July, in a canoe, with little whitewater experience, and dragging around lots and lots of rapids while getting molested by mosquitos and black flies. If one were to look at it from the perspective of white water kayaking, though, it’s a great trip. We went in mid-May, which was cold enough to meet the sweet spot: no bugs and more than enough water.
The whitewater builds up from Day 1, so you get a chance to warm up and get used to your heavy boat. Since it’s often run with canoes, there are generally unmaintained portage trails around the bigger rapids which were pretty easy to follow.
It’s a rarely run river, so you must always be on your toes watching for logs, especially in the tighter areas when the river splits around islands. There are several bigger drops that demand attention and safety setting, with lots of fun river miles in between.
The first day of our trip was a good warm up, with a somewhat maze-like atmosphere. After gear faffing in the morning and driving to the put in, we had a simple few hours of paddling fun wave trains while getting a feel for our loaded boats. We encountered our first adventure about an hour after we put in, when we lost track of the river itself! This raised great questions like “Are we sure we are on the right river” and “where the hell are we”. However, it turned out that we had just gone the wrong way around an island and paddled into the backside of a large marsh. A little backtracking, and we found the current downstream again.
On day two, the frequency of islands and rapids in the river picked up, and we had to take a few lucky guesses about which island splits to take. We could often eddy out and try to scope downstream for logs from our boats. We made progress by jumping downstream from eddy to eddy to peer around the bend. We tended to follow the river left channels – not consciously, but they were always log free and had good visibility. This stretch was great fun, with some really high quality rapids.
We lucked out: our choose-your-own-adventure through the islands brought us through this stretch free of both logs and portages. When the river channels came back together, we paddled around to see some of the other paths we could have taken and we were happy with the one we took. On the other side, there was a rather manky vertical ledge with a big log blocking most of the run-out; we would have walked it for sure.
The river re-joined itself and had a few big rapids later in the day. Despite the high water, we were still able to run a lot of great rapids – minus one big bedrock slide, and one in which we portaged the upper portion, and sneaked down the right side due to a poorly placed log (they both would have been fine at lower flows). We found a nice campsite on the downstream side of a big island. It was on the upstream side of what turned out to be a big lake and marsh system.
Day 3 on the river was a long one. We paddled roughly 15 KMs over 10 hours, and ended on the shores of Lake Superior. It had the biggest bedrock drops of the run. After breaking camp and paddling through the lake, we were greeted by a large bedrock cleft and a rather big slide. This rapid was very flooded and resulted in a portage. It felt as though this drop was acting like a sort of valve controlling the outflow of the ‘lake’ above. Its power was unmatched by anything we had seen upstream. We repeated this pattern around several big drops and ran lots of rapids in between. It seemed pretty obvious which side of the river had the portage path, although we did scout a few rapids from both sides to see if there was a way to run them. A major tributary, the Jimmy Kash, comes in on the left. This signals the end of the major rapids, and the river changes character to a swift moving cobble bar riverbed for a few KMs until you come to Dennison Falls which marks the start of . . .
The Hardest Portage in North America
It was rather obvious where to start this portage on the left. The river becomes wide, flat and lake-ish, then cuts right and flows between two towering rocks that can’t be much more than 30 feet apart, akin to the Black Gate of Mordor. The water was so high that we could feel the vibrations from the water careening into the gorge and off Dennison falls. There is a very obvious place to get out on the left and begin what the canoe trippers call ‘The Hardest Portage in North America’. While I haven’t done all the portages in North America, I can say it was hard but I don’t believe it’s the hardest. It took us about 4.5-5 hours to complete the portage. We were the first group in this year, so we had lots of route finding and bushwacking. There is a definite trail to follow, but we lost it a few times. If you were to remove the difficulties of route finding it would have been relatively straight forward, but physically taxing.
It would be very hard to describe the route we took; however, I can say from where we took off the river, we went straight to the right up a steep hill, staying more or less parallel to the river. The portage consists of going up and over two major ridges to get around the massive upper and lower Dennison falls. It required ropes to belay boats down damn steep hillsides through the woods, and hand over hand pulls to get them up them. Once we reached the bottom of the upper falls, we had a lot of trouble finding the route around the lower falls. Advice from the owner of the outfitter told us to aim for a creek that flows into the river on the left, opposite the bottom of the lower falls. The traditional portage path was an overgrown mess and we found our own way up and over the adjacent ridge instead. The whole ordeal ended with a two pitch lowering of the boats into the small creek at the base of the lower falls. At the end, it involved having one person in a small cleft in a wall, at the edge of a 10ft vertical drop, guiding the boats down to the person standing chest deep in the feeder creek to catch the boats and swim them across. Since the river was so high, we had to drag the boats up and over another cobble bar to get away from the swirling eddy that formed at the base of the lower falls. I think the normal route at the lower falls is to belay off a vertical rock ledge about 50 yards closer to the falls than we were. This might work at low summer flows but it was simply gushing off the falls and the bottom of that belay was practically in the falls.
Once back in our boats, it was about 8pm, and we had no more than 2 KMs to the outflow into the lake. We pushed on hoping there were no major rapids because we were rather worn out from the long portage. Fortunately, everything was rather calm after the falls. A few surf waves and holes to doge led to a swift moving river all the way to the lake. At one point, we checked our gps and we were floating along at 8 mph! The extra push to the lake was well worth it, because we were rewarded with a beautiful calm sunset over the lake, and a giant beautiful campsite well worn by sea kayakers. We were able to explode all our gear, and get a roaring fire going with the piles of driftwood available. Everything was a bit of a mess after dragging our boats through the woods for hours on end.
The local sea kayaking guides told us they will paddle up to the mouth of the Dog on the lake, then hike up to Dennison. Supposedly there is a trail on RL from the lake up to the falls, but it is pretty faint. We didn’t find much of a maintained trail.
We all slept late the next morning and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast that turned into a leisurely lunch. We began the lake paddle mid-day and enjoyed absolutely perfect weather, with no wind and crystal clear water. We knew that there was bad weather moving into the area over the next two days, so we planned accordingly. It was about 25 kms to the take out, and after a pretty easy day, we made it about 15 kms by dinner time. We set up camp and enjoyed the last of our cocktails and food at a great beach. The next morning, fog and light rain rolled in which made our two open water crossings a little more tenuous than normal, but so much fun. Rather than following close to shore, we struck out across the second bay following a compass bearing. With visibility around 50-100 yards, we grouped up and tried to hold a straight line. It worked rather well and we hit the opposite shore about a quarter mile from our intended destination. We reached the takeout at Naturally Superior mid-day to a cooler full of Labatts as we exploded our gear in a vain attempt to get things dry before packing it all into the car.
We had high hopes of reeling in some lunkers, but to no avail. It was too cold and the water was too high for any good fishing. I would imagine trips later in the summer would have better luck bringing something up. While we all had fly fishing equipment, it would have been wiser to bring a spinner and some big shiny lures. The romance of fly fishing is enticing but ultimately a vain exercise, especially at this time of year before the bugs hatched.
I’m guessing that because of the cold snap while we were there, we really didn’t see much wildlife, except for an annoying woodpecker and one mountain chicken that walked through camp one morning. Again, I think trips later in the season would encounter more living creatures. While driving around Wawa, we did see moose and one wolf crossing the road.
-There are good layers that you can download onto Google Earth, found here:
You want file nhn_rhn_02bd000_kml
-Paper maps can be ordered, they have accurate markings along the river indicating where there are rapids: (need link from Jeremy)
-Shuttles can be arranged through Naturally Superior Adventures
-Pyranha Scorch X’s: 3 of 4 boats in the group were X’s. This is a fantastic boat unloaded and it handled a heavy load better than any boat I’ve ever paddled. I’m 6’3, 205 lbs. I always feel that I am on the top end of the weight spectrum for creek boats, but the X floats very high and still maintains good maneuverability when loaded.
-We packed a lot of food and drinks. We joked that despite all the physical exertion, it was a calorie positive trip. We found small piles of snow lingering in the woods. When compacted, it made ice to mellow our whiskey. We probably over packed food and booze, but it made for fun nights camping and always had supplies to share. The other way to think about it, is that we were prepared with food to be storm bound on the shores of the Superior.
-There are ferry services that will pick you up on the lake and take you back to Wawa. However, from my research they are pretty expensive and not worth the cost. Unless you have bad weather, I would highly recommend paddling out the lake. It was a great palette cleanser for the whole trip and it was quite beautiful.
-We found the maps of the area to be trustworthy. They indicate the location of rapids, which was surprisingly accurate.
-There are not many good options for supplies in Wawa; I would stock up before getting to town. Sault Ste. Marie is the nearest city and has everything you need. Especially the pickled poutine at Wacky Wings.
-All the sea kayakers thought we were crazy for paddling our creek boats back across the lake, but it really wasn’t a problem.
-We would like to thank the Virginia Alpine Institute for their generous support on and off the river. This trip would not have been possible without their help.