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Marjorie Lake Nastawgan
Thursday, 09 October 2008 00:00

Trip report by Mike MacIntosh

August ???? 2008… I’ve lost count at this point

Years ago, during my first trip through the Chiniguchi area, I was told of little known route, linking Wolf Lake, with McConnell Bay of Chiniguchi Lake through Rathwell, Landry, and Marjorie Lakes.

Now, ten years after that initial trip to the Chiniguchi area, here I was with enough time on my hands to venture into this nearly unknown route. I had been scheduled to do some canoe trip guiding for a nearby lodge, but after a last-minute cancellation, I found myself in the area with 5 or 6 days to kill, a full food pack, and the desire to explore new country.

My good friend, Sid Bredin, had been through this route the previous spring, and had been kind enough to let me look over his maps and notes of the area. I knew that very few, if any, paddlers used this particular route each season, and from Sid’s description, I knew the old Nastawgan would be in need of some serious restoration work, before it ran the risk of becoming lost forever.

I started out my trip late on a Thursday evening, as I’d been visiting with friends at a cottage on nearby Kukagami Lake while waiting for a thunderstorm to pass. Upon seeing clear skies, despite the fact that it was already after 7:00pm, I decided to ignore the tempting invitation of a dry bed and a cold beer, and get a few hours paddling in that evening.

Once on Matagamasi Lake, the winds died and the skies cleared completely, making for an ideal evening’s paddle. So nice, in fact, that I decided to travel in the style of Grey Owl; that is, to travel at night. I ended up paddling the entire North arm of Matagamasi under a moonlit sky, pulling into a small campsite just as the stars were starting to shine brightly.

Ancient blazes still visableThe next morning I awoke early, eager to get started on the task at hand. I quickly made my way up to Wolf Lake, following the route that I had come to know very   well over the last decade of tripping in this region. From Wolf Lake, I made my way  to the Northeast corner of the lake, and located the trailhead of the old Nastawgan. This trail was easily followed by the still obvious axe blazes clearly visible on the ancient red pine, that had stood in this area for over 250 years. Some of the trees   in this forest are over 300 years old, so it’s anyone’s guess how old these axe  blazes might be. In many cases, the thick bark of the red pine had completely grown over the blazes, leaving only a small slit in the bark indicating where the tree had been marked, many years ago.

This trail runs along a creek bed North of Wolf Lake, until it comes out at the Mackelcan logging road. This road  was constructed in 1988, and is a perfect   example of how canoe routes can be lost to logging. Once the portage meets the logging road, the trail is lost. On previous scouting trips, I had searched for a sign   of the original portage on the other side of the logging road, but found nothing - not even a single axe blaze. After studying  Craig Macdonald’s historical Nastawgan map of Temagami, and consulting with other paddlers, we came to the conclusion that the original portage must have followed roughly the same route as the present day logging road. The loggers had simply built the road on top of the old portage. It was simply the best way to get through this area, and the Ojibway people knew this - thousands of years before the loggers came through this way in the 1980s. So along the road I went, climbing higher and higher until the ridge starts to level out. After some close examination, and a lot of backtracking, I finally found what looked like a trail, leading away from the road, heading North. I pushed through the thick second-growth that had sprung up after the loggers had passed through, and once into virgin forest, a trail started to appear. A faint trail, visible on the forest floor, but mostly overgrown with young saplings and overhanging branches. After about an hour’s work with the brush axe and bow saw, a clear trail became visible through the thick forest, leading right down to the shores of Landry Lake.

Landry Lake

I was immediately struck by the rugged beauty of Landry Lake. On the West shore, a quartzite cliff rises 300 meters above the lake‘s surface. This quartzite outcropping stretches for over a kilometre   up the Western shore and is easily as scenic as anything you would expect to see in Killarney. Campsites are essentially non-existent   on this lake, but I managed to find a spot barely big enough to pitch my little tent, directly across from the white quartzite cliffs.

The following morning, I took my time, hanging around camp for awhile, just enjoying the scenery and drinking the obligatory four cups of coffee that usually precede a day’s hard work in the bush.

I found the trailhead at the North end of Landry Lake, on the edge  of a beaver marsh, marked by  a piece of orange flagging tape tied   to a branch. This led me to believe that this trail would be in better condition than the one I had fought my way through the day before. I couldn’t have been more wrong; this portage had me scratching my head on more than one location. The portage starts off by crossing an old skidder trail that skirts the end of Landry Lake, just meters off the water‘s edge. It follows the skidder trail for a few meters, before turning North, towards Rathwell Lake. This portage was in the worst condition of all of the portages along this route. Not that it was long, or particularly difficult, just that it had been many, many years since it had seen any kind of maintenance. Without steady use, these trails can become very overgrown, and even disappear completely in places. The occasional depression on the forest floor, and the ever-present overgrown axe blazes on the older trees, however, kept me on the right path. Three solid hours of axe work brought me to a small pond. A short paddle across this pond brought me to one more short portage that led to a small bay of Rathwell Lake.

Route Map

Rathwell is a stunning lake, bordered by tall cliffs along it’s entire Western shore, and by a jackpine covered rocky ridge along it’s Eastern shore. I located one campsite on the east shore, marked by a long-abandoned fire ring on one of the rocky outcroppings. Although this was the only sign of an actual campsite that I could find, this lake offers many potential sites along its Eastern shore.

After a quick stop for a late lunch on Rathwell Lake, I hurried along, anticipating another overgrown, labour intensive trail between Rathwell Lake and Marjorie Lake. I was pleasantly surprised, however, upon reaching the trailhead and finding an easy-to-follow portage in front of me. Someone had obviously done some maintenance on this section of the route, albeit several years back. There were some blowdowns to be cleared, and I took down a number of small saplings that were encroaching on the trail, but in comparison to the last portage, this was a veritable “walk in the park”.

Marjorie is another stunning lake, with rocky outcroppings lining the entire Eastern shoreline. The lake is about 3 km in length and is surrounded by pure conifer stands. Jackpine and red pine dominate these forests, with a few white pine, white spruce, and cedar mixed in.

I spotted a huge bull moose munching on aquatic plants about halfway up the lake, but he got a whiff of me long before I could get close. I couldn’t have been hard to detect; I had been working hard, and sweating hard, swinging an axe in the bush all day, and this moose wasn’t about to stick around to get a closer look at whatever that smell was coming from…

I found a decent campsite, just North of where I had encountered the moose, and hastily set to getting my tent and the rain tarp up, as there were some ugly looking clouds moving in from the Northwest. I had no sooner anchored the rain tarp, when off in the distance - the delicate sound of thunder - a sound that I had come to know all too well during my 50+ days in a canoe this summer. The skies opened up, and I sought refuge under the rain tarp, seeking comfort in a glass or two of my daily ration of single malt scotch.

Marjorie LakeThe rain continued all evening, and I just couldn’t be motivated to leave the relative comfort of the rain tarp to go out and get a fire going on which to cook my dinner, instead relying on a few pieces of leftover bannock and a handful of trail mix, before crawling off to bed.

I awoke the next morning, to a bright, sunny day, and after another leisurely breakfast by the fire, I continued North, towards McConnell Bay of Chiniguchi Lake. From Marjorie Lake, it is possible to paddle through a narrow channel, directly into the next pond. From here, a series of short  portages connect a series of three small ponds, that eventually lead to McConnell Bay. These portages were all in relatively good condition, some requiring no work at all. This made for an easy half day’s paddle through typically northern boreal type lakes. The second portage North of  Marjorie Lake runs along a creek and passes a particularly scenic little cascading waterfall. Just   past the falls, where the creek enters the pond, I paddled over on old roadbed, now underwater. This road was marked on the topographical map, and I was curious as to what it’s condition might be. Beyond the gravel roadbed that was visible beneath the water’s surface, the road had all but disappeared in the forest. The only access to this road was from the South end of Laura Lake, where the bridge that once provided access to these logging roads had been removed. This was a reminder of the importance of properly decommissioning forest access roads once logging operations have ceased. I smiled as I paddled over what once was a road, and watched it quickly fade into the surrounding forest - a reminder of what we build on this land, Mother Nature will eventually reclaim.

I eventually made my way into McConnell Bay, and had a quick swim over at the beach on the North shore. From there, finding myself ahead of schedule, I decided I would try to locate another old Nastawgan, one that connects McConnell Bay with Musko Bay of Chiniguchi Lake - an old shortcut route through Chiniguchi Lake that I’d seen marked on old maps. I searched for awhile, walking the shoreline of the little pond that lies just South of McConnell Bay, but my search proved fruitless I eventually gave up, and opted to make the long paddle out of McConnell Bay, through the main body of Chiniguchi Lake.

I made camp for the night on the main body of Chiniguchi Lake, and spent the evening studying my maps, trying to figure out where this elusive trail might be. I debated heading back over to Musko Bay the next morning, and start swinging the axe again, to open up this little shortcut.

Morning came however, and greeted me with another day of steady drizzle, and the motivation to go crashing through the wet bush was nowhere to be found. Instead, I found solace in a good book under the comfort of my well-used rain fly.

In the end, I decided that my days had been well spent along the Marjorie route, and my thirst for exploring new country had been quenched… Anyway, the Marjorie Lake Nastawgan restoration project was ten years in the making - I needed to keep at least one route a mystery to keep me motivated until next season.

- Mike McIntosh is an avid backcountry paddler, outdoor educator, and wilderness guide.