In my life I have never regretted any of the trips that I have taken. My November 2018 canoe trip on the Gibson-McDonald route with Mark Highfield might be the one exception as we raced against Mother Nature to get one last trip in before enduring 5 long months of winter.
The Gibson-McDonald canoe route has long been a favourite of mine. Not only is it short enough to do in 2 days, it’s close to home and easy to access at a very low cost. It also happens to have been my very first backcountry canoe trip (https://quickescapes.ca/trips/gibson-mcdonald-canoe-route) so I have very fond memories of this particular route.
I have paddled this route in spring, summer and fall. The river conditions are variable depending on the season but it was always easily managed. With this in mind, it was this route that I suggested to Mark when we were contemplating one last trip for the year.
Before setting out I had expressed 2 big concerns about this route. The first concern was the dam located halfway through the trip that controlled water levels on Go Home Lake. In all my years doing this route I had only seen the dam open once and the discharged water had a profound impact on the Gibson River.
The next big concern was the 6km section of the route that paddles through a relatively wide open section of Georgian Bay. This can be tough to paddle if the winds are up. Dumping your canoe is never a great option during any trip and with water temperatures near freezing, it would have been disastrous on this trip.
Mark and I planned the trip out and starting prepping the gear. It was only going to be 2 days and 1 night but the amount of gear rarely differs between short trips and long trips. With the cold weather we made sure to have plenty of warm/dry clothing at our disposal.
With weather forecasts calling for snow and subzero temperatures we started getting questions from friends and family asking if this trip was a good idea. “Of course it was” we said. “We will be fine”. “You have nothing to worry about”. Perhaps we should have listened?
Mark met at my house at 8am on November 13th. The put in for this route is only about an hour from my house and after loading up his Tacoma (https://quickescapes.ca/trips/my-tacoma-truckbed-modification) we were lakeside by 9:30. We were welcomed by a partially frozen put in. Perhaps this was a sign?
We broke up the ice and loaded the canoe and headed down off for adventure. Curiously I dipped my hand in the water to test the temperature. I knew instantly that staying dry was our top priority. I was happy that I brought along some neoprene gloves for warmth while paddling.
Mark and I made the decision to complete the route counter clockwise. This would take us through Six Mile Lake, up the Hungry Creek and into Gibson Lake. From there we would travel the Gibson River down to our campsite at Three Rock Chute. It was a full day of paddling but this was a similar route that I had done several times prior.
Our first portage was only about 2km from the put in. It was an awkward 250m around a dam. With a small skiff of snow on the ground we were extra vigilant with our footing. We had experienced a trip a few years ago that ended with a broken foot (https://quickescapes.ca/trips/bad-break-emergency-back-country) and we weren't in a hurry to repeat that. With all of our gear, we decided to take 2 separate trips. The entire portage surprisingly took us about 45 minutes. We were both shocked at how slow the process was in the cold weather and snow covered trail.
Six Mile Lake was deserted. There wasn’t a single boat on the lake which is a nice change from the usual motor boat haven of the summer months. We had a slight wind at our back and we were making great time; that is up until we hit the Hungry Creek.
From a distance we could see that there was ice on the creek. We both made comments about how fun this was going to be and we made sure to setup our cameras to capture us plowing through the frozen water. As we approached we paddled a little harder to get some speed.
I learned a very valuable lesson a moment later. A canoe with two 200lbs men can come to a full stop when it hits ¼” ice. A couple of well-timed low braces kept us from capsizing and once we collected ourselves we realized that there was about 200m of ice ahead of us. With much effort, Mark (in the bow) was able break up the ice with his paddle. It probably took us 30 minutes to go these 200m. Immediately we became concerned that we might run into more ice somewhere else along the route.
Shortly after this we stopped for a quick bite to eat before navigating our way to Gibson Lake.
Before long we were on Gibson Lake making our way to the Gibson River. The Gibson is nice because once you make your first portage you are in a relatively secluded area. This is great for those summer trippers looking for solitude, but somewhat worrisome for us. Given that we were the only ones on the river the seclusion increased the level of risk if anything were to happen.
Again the portages were slow going and our pace was off considerably. I unknowingly lead us down the wrong trail on a portage and once we got our bearings we discussed finding a campsite for the night. There was only about 45 minutes of light left and it looked like bad weather was coming in. We consulted the map and found a site just up ahead and decided we would hunker down there until the morning. We had missed our destination of Three Rock Chute by approximately 5km.
Mark and I had been camping together long enough that we have established a great campsite routine. Mark’s the fire guy so he set to work collecting wood and getting the fire going. He always impresses me with how he can seemingly get a fire started under almost any conditions, rain or shine. Mark has also perfected his tarp setup so he was in charge there. I found a place to setup the tent and started getting the gear stored away and prepping dinner. It was about 5:30pm; the sun was down and the snow was starting to come down.
If my memory serves it was steak and vegetables for dinner that night. We had also brought along a few beer and of course a bottle of whiskey. We had a great night around the campfire. The snow was driving down and starting to accumulate. We talked about what the rest of the trip would look like and decided that it would be best to break camp early and get on the water before the (reported) storms moved in later that afternoon.
My sleep was restless that night. I don’t generally sleep well in subzero temperatures and that night was no exception. My mind was racing with what tomorrow would bring. Would it stop snowing? Would the dam be open? What would the winds be like on Georgian Bay? Should we just turn around and head back the way that we came (the devil you know vs the devil you don’t know). I was unable to shut off my brain as I ran through every ‘what if’ scenario I could come up with.
We were up before the dawn and scrabbled together some breakfast and coffee. Just after sunup we loaded the canoe and set out for the day’s adventure. The snow had stopped but several inches had accumulated over night. It was somewhat sunny, but still cold, and there was little to no wind which we were both appreciative of. Within a few hundred meters we were on our first portage. Even with the snow and our slow, deliberate pace, we had warmed up quickly and the mood was high.
That didn’t last long.
From a distance we could see something moving downstream. It was too far away to really tell what it was but as we drew closer I simply lamented “The dam’s open”.
My first fear had been realized.
We carefully approached and landed our canoe well back in order to scout out the situation. The water was move at an incredible speed. Mark and I have a moderate amount of moving water experience but this looked well beyond what we were willing to risk. We identified the slowest sections that avoided the major boils and set out to get to the other side. After one failed attempt, we decided the safest option was to portage around. Being that there is no natural portage on this stretch of the river, we had to bushwhack our way through. In total it took us about an hour to traverse this small section of river, but we were still warm and dry so it was time well spent.
The next highlight for us was Three Rock Chute. Three Rock Chute is the major feature on this route and my favourite section of the river. There are 2 great campsites on the south side of the river (one above the falls and one below) and a portage of about 250m on the right.
The problem that we soon ran into was that the high water levels on the river and the outflow from Three Rock Chute extended well beyond the normal portage put it. Mark and I discussed options and felt that it would be safer to portage a little further through the bush and find a safer entry point. After about 50m we had limited portage options and we were forced to put the boat in into the swift outflow of Three Rock Chute.
By this point in the trip we were making ultra conservative, safe decisions. The high water levels made travel down The Gibson River difficult and all of our portages were nearly double the distance. The final section of the river before dumping into Georgian Bay is generally a small swift that is easily paddled. This time we were again forced into a portage before exiting into Georgian Bay.
We had been concerned about the paddle across Georgian Bay. It was only 6km but with it being relatively wide open, high winds would make for a challenging traverse.
Georgian Bay was as flat as glass.
We chuckled in relief and set out across the bay. Much of the stress from the trip was lifted by this point and our moods improved.
An uneventful crossing of Georgian Bay took us into McCrae Lake. McCrae is probably one of my most frequented backcountry locations. It’s easy to access and it’s Crownland so there is no cost for Canadian Citizens. We were only about an hour from completing our journey.
Mark and I were both extremely tired by this point. The cold weather and longer than expected portages (and my sleepless night) had really taken it’s toll. We debated stopping for a break but decided to push through. There was one last portage of 250m and a short paddle back to the car.
That last portage was a little tricky with the wet, snowy conditions and our fatigue, but we successfully navigated it. As we approached our pull out we were again met with ice on the lake. By this stage of the trip we weren’t the most graceful and Mark ended up hopping out and pulling the canoe to shore.
It was an adventure and in my opinion life is all about adventure. I was happy to have completed it without any major incidents. Would I do it again? Only time will tell. But I will give the notion of one last trip for the year a little more consideration in the future.
***There will be a trip video coming soon. Once it is complete it will be added to this article***