Paddle the backwater

Photo by Brian Burger

August is the perfect time for boating, but sometimes the lakes can feel just a tad too busy. To get away from the crowd, launch your canoe or kayak and take a daytrip down one of Muskoka’s many excellent paddling rivers and streams.

You’ll be astonished at how quickly you can find yourself enjoying peace and quiet and solitude, just a few minutes paddle from town. And if you launch in a spot where there’s a waterfall or rapids between you and the big lake, you will find little or no motor boat traffic.

South Branch

The Muskoka River is a great place to start. Just about the only really busy section is between Bracebridge and Lake Muskoka; the rest of the river is remarkably quiet.

The river is divided into the North Branch, which flows from Fairy Lake in Huntsville through Mary Lake in Port Sydney, and the South Branch, which runs south from Baysville. The two branches unite in Bracebridge.

You can launch just about anywhere on the river and enjoy great paddling, but one of the nicest, and most secluded sections is on the south branch between Fraserburg and Mathiasville. There are sections with lots of homes and cottages, but also some long stretches of forested banks, meandering sidestreams, and lovely oxbows. If you want to stay overnight, there are even a couple of designated campsites, which the town of Bracebridge maintains in a little canoe-access park. (The park is named for David Thompson, the famous explorer and map-maker, who paddled and mapped the river in the 1800s).

You can launch at the Mathiasville Dam, which is just off Highway 118 east, and paddle upstream, or drive out Fraserburg Road from Bracebridge and paddle downstream.

Big East

If Oxbows and sandy banks are your thing, then this Huntsville-area river is the place to go.

From the air, the river looks like a line squiggled by a demented four-year-old – squiggles and turns and not a straight section anywhere. On the water, that means there’s a new surprise around every bend.

It can be a bit busy near the mouth on Lake Vernon, but quickly becomes quiet and contemplative the farther upstream you go.

If you launch at Williamsport Bridge, you can paddle all the way down to Lake Vernon – the trip is detailed in this article from a few years ago. You can also go upstream, all the way into Algonquin Park. Although be warned that the river can get very shallow in the late season, so you may find yourself walking some sections.

Shadow River

In the 19th century, this was described as “one of the most natural curiosities of the Muskoka District,” a river so mirror-like that it perfectly reflected every detail of the overhanging trees and bushes.

Poet Pauline Johnson wrote that the river makes you feel as though you’re “Midway twixt earth and heaven, a bubble in the pearly air.” Certainly the combination of dark water and a very slow current give this river some remarkable reflections.

The river empties into Lake Rosseau at the village of Rosseau, so you can start your trip right from the town docks. Like many of the smaller rivers here, the farther upstream you go, the more likely you are to hit dry sections in the late season. With all the rain we’ve had this year, though, paddling conditions should be better than usual for the late season.

Expect to encounter plenty of beaver dams, with wildlife-filled marshes behind each one. There are also some historic sites along the way, including a historic cemetery at Cemetery Chutes, several kilometres from the river’s mouth.

Gibson River

This is the most ambitious and longest route in Muskoka, a river that you can spend a week exploring and camping on. You can start as far east as Nine Mile Lake (near Torrance) and go all the way to Georgian Bay, if you wish. Or you can launch at Six Mile Lake Provincial Park, and do a loop out to the bay and back again.

For a day trip, either of these options are wonderful. You may also want to check out the Gibson River Provincial Park – there’s no camping or facilities of any kind here, but there are some lovely trails through the woods.

Be aware while paddling in west Muskoka that there are two potential hazards underfoot: poison ivy shows up here in more abundance than you’ll find it in other parts of Muskoka, and so do Massassauga Rattlesnakes. The snakes are very rare, and bites are even more rare, but they do happen – just watch where you step.

For more paddling adventures, pick up a copy of Hap Wilson’s excellent guidebook, Canoeing and Hiking Wild Muskoka. Beautifully illustrated and very informative.


Posted in Around Muskoka, Connecting with Nature.