June 11-12, 2016
Moon River Loop via Kapikog and Healey Lakes
It’s that time of year again, folks, when I decide to go camping on a whim and search out a gnarly weekend route with little to no notice or planning. Freaks Andrew out every time. Maybe he was right to worry: The route I chose was roughly 30km long, we both left work at 21:30 the night before, we had to pack everything and pick up our canoe on the Saturday morning, and I had only procured the map from Brad over at Explore the Backcountry a day ahead of time. [It’s a great map, and I would love to share it with you wonderful people, but as it is yet to be published I must refrain from showing you the details of the route we took through Muskoka’s Georgian Bay cottage country region and down the lower third of the Moon River, and trust that my photos and descriptions of the area will be enough for you INSATIABLE trip report readers who have been BADGERING me non-stop to write up this little story for you. Well, this paragraph has taken a strange turn. Where was I?]
Ah, yes. The Moon River. I chose this route for several reasons:
1.Reasonable drive from our home on the shores of polluted Lake Ontario in Toronto
ii) Could turn a river trip into a loop and thus avoid annoyance of organizing shuttle
three: Our friends have a cottage on one of the lakes we would be paddling through
and d) We had a map.
I was first turned on to the Moon River as a canoeing destination through Hap Wilson’s Canoeing and Hiking Wild Muskoka eco-adventure guidebook. The river looked challenging and interesting, and I knew its relative location from seeing a fleeting glimpse while driving past along the highway. So, after wrestling our gear out of our tiny closets and into our giant packs, we finally hit the road north around 13:00 on Saturday and made it to the access point by three in the afternoon. We parked at the end of the Kapikog Dam Rd and portaged our gear 150m up the dirt road to the dam (ok, we drove our gear right up to the bridge over the dam to shorten the portage and then drove the car back to park it – quit judging us) and were on the water by 15:30 after a brief pause in the hot sun to pick a few tiny delicious wild strawberries, which were growing abundantly at the put-in.
“Rather breezy” as we paddled hard and fast across Kapikog Lake, riding the swells to our first real portage, a quick and painless 250m to bypass a culvert and hop over the Little Kapikog Lake Rd to Dunbar Lake (which is only about a km long and about half that across). Saw a HUGE FISH jump… maybe a muskie? Nessie? The blackflies first appeared in disturbingly large numbers here in spite of the wind, and we were pestered mercilessly by deerflies shortly afterwards. The bugs followed us across Dunbar, over the 60m hop to Juniper Lake (where we saw lots of beautiful pink lady’s slipper orchids and a lovely campsite is located), and through to the next portage.
We had a bit of difficulty locating the 750m portage into Eagle Lake as the shoreline was quite overgrown, but by using some GPS functions on my iPhone and our map we found an area where we thought the takeout should be and hunted around for a trail. Once we had spied a bit of flagging tape we carried our gear along a good path, marked with helpful rock cairns the entire length, amid a vicious onslaught of biting insects who had come from all over Muskoka to feast on us. At the far end of the portage, we found a painted turtle and a large pile of bear poop, so we hurried back to grab the last load while singing The Blackfly Song loudly and with much heavy breathing. At this point in time, Andrew mentioned that he thought the bugs were just swarming him and not biting for some odd reason. He was mistaken. I repeatedly told him that he was bleeding through his shirt from bites and that he should probably put some DEET on. He did not heed my advice.
Eagle Lake started as bit of a boggy pond swamp, with a healthy population of bugs and pitcher plants, but shortly opened up into a nice lake with many windy rock peninsulas to pitch a tent upon. We were enjoying the relief from the flies out on the water, and so continued paddling southeast-ish through Vaughan Lake (no portage) and Buckhorn Lake (170m portage, rocky but easy to follow, passes to the right of a hunting cabin) where we began to search for a campsite.
Choosing an island smack in the middle of the lake to be sure of catching a good breeze in defence against our third enemy, the mosquito, we began wrestling with our Eureka VCS 13 Tarp and Bug Shelter. I say wrestling because the wind was growing ever stronger, and the tarp was likely to Mary Poppins me across the lake if I didn’t keep it tucked away. The campsite was nice. It definitely saw use from anglers and hunters, as there were several cleaning stations built around trees and a camouflaged shelving unit assembled on one side of the island, but it was clean and tidy and there was even a picnic table resting against a tree that had a note written on it in Sharpie saying, “Use it, Don’t Abuse it”. We tried to arrange our bug shelter to fit over the table, but this was not possible due to tree configuration/topography, so we spent another half-hour moving the whole mess to a better spot. After a beer break, we set up our tent on the far side of the island (another Mary Poppins situation) and were treated to a spectacular sunset. We were thankfully spared the mosquitos that evening, and after the sun had disappeared the blackflies and deerflies went to go have a nice restful nap before resuming the attack in the morning, and all was peaceful and good until (harmless) june bugs started flying around and hitting us in the faces with their hard, fat, stupid bodies.
We cooked up a juicy ribeye steak over a tiny cooking fire we took pains to ensure was safely out of the wind and scarfed it down with a kale salad. At this point, sitting across from one another, we noticed the battle scars. Andrew’s temples, ears, and neck were shredded and bloody with blackfly bites. We surmised they liked to hide out in his dreamy curls and attack from within. “They’re Not Biting, Just Swarming” was in actuality a trojan horse of blackflies nestled in his hair. My forehead had grown a lump the size of a golf ball from a deerfly bite. I was well on my way to growing a whole new face, so I popped a few antihistamines immediately and Andrew comforted me by laughing madly for ten minutes while taking photos of my honourable war wound. I share these unflattering photos with you, dear reader, so you can know our suffering.
Our food barrel was hung twice (the first time, Andrew’s knot didn’t hold, which has never happened before… really quite lucky to not be standing under the barrel when it fell) and we went to bed, waking in the wee hours of the morning due to extreme wind gusts rattling the tent and rustling the pines. The morning eventually dawned bright and cool, the worrisome wind still blowing. Whitecaps early in the morning typically foreshadow a difficult day, and this was no exception. A leisurely pot of coffee and breaking camp while watching the waves brought us to 10:00 sooner than expected, and with no breakfast in our bellies we set off in a rush to our first portage of the rapidly-expiring morning, a 1100m mosquito-infested mud bath over a wide trail that was crisscrossed with many off-road recreational vehicle tire ruts. We were overtaken by two guys on dirtbikes, who seemed friendly enough as they nodded their helmets at us and didn’t try to run us down. We met up with the pair at the far side of the portage, where we saw they had managed to drive a truck in with their bikes strapped in the back. Said a quick hello and trudged back through the muck to retrieve our canoe and barrel after a little snack of applesauce and trail mix. Moved off the trail slightly to allow truck with dirtbikers to pass, and by 11:30 or so we had arrived with all of our gear at the Moon River.
I’m not sure why I packed our barrel so heavy for a weekend, but I did, and it was not comfortable whatsoever on a km long portage. I was awfully cranky by the time we reached the Moon, and completely disgusted and unimpressed to find a fresh pile of human feces less than a metre from the river with a wad of toilet paper thrown in a bush. The dirtbikers were not nice people after all. We got out of there pretty quickly, noting that the current flushing us down to Georgian Bay was not as strong as the headwind we were paddling against. This seems to be a recurring theme on trips.
Roughly a km downstream we reached another portage around Curtain Falls (220m). I highly recommend following Hap Wilson’s detailed river maps for this section, as Curtain Falls is a bit of a Sneaky Pete and looks pretty innocuous from above. From the takeout we stopped to view the falls at a closer angle and were duly impressed with the ferocity and speed of the water rushing past. There were two campsites along the portage that weren’t half bad, and we paddled on downriver for about 4km until a 130m portage around the first of the Twin Falls (stick to the right!) and came upon one of the most horribly trashed campsites I have ever seen. There was styrofoam garbage liberally sprinkled around the entire area, frying pans, umbrellas, broken chairs, and three filthy bush toilets constructed haphazardly and in full view of the entire site. How could anyone do this to such a beautiful place? Who would build three (3!) dirty shit boxes in the middle of a campsite? What asshole decided to bring in all this gear and then leave it behind? It was depressing, but we didn’t have the time or the space or the HAZMAT suits required to deal with the cleanup on this trip, especially because we managed to get ourselves lost for a good hour and a half somewhere in between the Twin Falls.
We initially paddled on the north arm of the river, towards what is marked on Hap’s map as “The Chimney” and which we determined was a terrible route to take due to high water levels, so we turned around amid much cursing and arguing and tried to reorient ourselves from the base of the first Twin Falls (very steep and difficult put-in down sheer granite slab). We were still lost but knew the general direction we needed to travel in, so we bushwhacked over a large hill until we were on the correct arm of the river, took two paddle strokes to get to the second Twin Falls, and portaged 120m river right to a put-in that was a tough downhill scramble over large boulders and driftwood. Back on track, we managed to run two small ledges marked on Hap’s map due to high water (whee!) and I didn’t have a massive panic attack or lose a contact lens or drown (for backstory on my most recent whitewater experience, please see this thread). We heard the roar of Moon Chutes from quite some distance away, the portage takeout was wide and easy to spot, and even boasted a helpful arrow painted on a rock to guide us.
Disclaimer: Canoeists have accidentally gone over the falls here. People have drowned. Bring a map. Pay attention. Play safe.
Moon Falls left us awestruck. The Moon River was hurling its way down into Georgian Bay through here over chunks of granite, with scrawny pines holding bravely to the rock in the middle of the waterfall. The rapid below the falls was extremely turbulent and powerful and tumbled along for another 400m, lengthening the total portage from 420m to about 600m. As we were walking back for the second load and taking photos, we heard strange loud noises over the commotion of the falls. These noises were soon determined to be gunshots and we hurried along, occasionally blowing a whistle to warn the firing squad we were in the area. Our lone whistle blasts were met with a pew-pew-pew-pew-pew-pew-pew which was not encouraging, and we ducked down low in our boats for the paddle across Arnold Bay and out into Moon River Bay. This is strangely not the first time we’ve had bullets whizzing over our heads while canoeing, and have learned to make haste in getting away from hillbillies shooting on Sundays.
The wind, the wind! 50km/h gusts in our faces as we dug our paddles into the waves of Georgian Bay, taking advantage of small islands and bays for shelter as we inched our way west and then north past numerous campsites and cottages. It took us two hours to reach the final 770m portage into Healey Lake from the falls, and with aching arms we dragged our gear onto a dock below the Healey Lake Dam. We had been informed that this portage passed over private land but that it had never been an issue, later learning that many years ago there used to be a horse-drawn buggy to deliver canoeists and cottagers from one lake to the other, and as we pulled ashore a friendly local pointed us in the correct direction to Healey Lake. I suppose we weren’t paying attention because we didn’t turn off the driveway soon enough and continued down a pleasantly flat road rather than through a field full of scrap boats and farm equipment. Harsh words were exchanged. We were both plum tuckered and our lack of lunch (and breakfast) was starting to slow us down. After finding the correct path and two of the biggest bear turds we’ve ever seen in the middle of the trail, we practically ran to the put-in and back yelling HEY BEAR and banging on the canoe to avoid a confrontation with what was probably the baddest bruin on the block.
More wind and waves on Healey, a large and long lake, so we elected to take a longer route up the east side and paddle by the family cottage of our dear friends Taylor and Kristen. They had left for the city hours before – it was nearing 20:00 when we paddled by – and we were kind of bummed we didn’t get to see them and tell them all about our adventure. Plus it’s a great cottage. We’ve had so many fun times there that it felt weird and sort of sad to paddle past the island without our friends around. We were also tired and hungry, and perhaps made more weepy and nostalgic by it as we reminisced about the Crab Blast of 2012 (and subsequent years), Flesh-Eating Smoked Jalapeno Poppers, Braised Rabbit in Cherry Beer, Freshly-Shot Duck Schnitzel and Mulled Wine, and other greatest hits from less lean times spent on Healey Lake.
Famished and exhausted, we slowly and mechanically completed the final 9km of our journey along the lake. One group of small children in a cottage pressed their faces against the window and waved at us; we answered with a paddle salute. Arrived at the dock and our car at 21:30, our hands barely able to unclench our paddles. The drive home was a daze and I remember only a 20-pack of Timbits before collapsing into a shower and then bed.
Every time we venture off the beaten path in Muskoka we are pleasantly surprised to find places that still feel wild and remote, full of whispering white pines and dark and pink granite rocks, with the openness of Georgian Bay just behind the hills. This was a challenging loop route, made tougher by our extremely late start on Saturday and the constant headwinds. The bugs were ATROCIOUS, the waterfalls were beautiful, and the plant life incredibly diverse. A two-hour drive from our home in the city and located in arguably the most popular and developed cottage area in Ontario, yet we felt like we were on a wild northern river. It’s wonderful that these places still exist, and I would do this weekend trip again in a heartbeat. Just maybe not in June.