Boy Scouts and Venturers overcome low water, long portages, and fierce headwinds to follow the French voyageurs’ historic trade route into northernmost Ontario, Canada.
“HUDDLE UP, everyone,” hollered Pierre de Rosa, our Birchbark Expeditions guide from the Greater Niagara Frontier Council of Buffalo, N.Y. Paddlers reached out to grab the gunwale of the canoe next to them, and soon our small flotilla sat seven abreast in the nearly still waters of the Missinaibi River.
“From here on, it’s extremely important that we stay close together,” de Rosa warned. “More than 30 people have died on this river, five of them just ahead at Thunderhouse Falls. Under no circumstance do we want to miss the portage route on the left side of the river.”
Guide Pierre de Rosa, left in blue, cautions the paddlers about potential rough water as they approach the Thunderhouse Falls portage trail on the Missinaibi’s left bank.
For me, the admonishment wasn’t necessary. I had researched this trip into northern Ontario, Canada, for more than six months. I knew how dangerous it was to get caught “river right” in the Missinaibi’s current, float past the point of no return, and be swept to a certain death over the churning 40-foot falls. My plan was to hug the left bank like it was my mom.
This was Day Three of a 205-mile canoe expedition from Mattice, Ontario, to Moosonee at James Bay, that left-handed thumb of water that hangs south of the much larger Hudson Bay. The Missinaibi flows northward within a narrow, protected corridor of land that is designated a provincial park.
Our group was a coed mix of Boy Scouts and Venturers from Troop and Crew 849 in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Crew 876 in Carrollton, Tex. (In the interest of full disclosure, my son, Doug, and his friend Jack Harries comprised the Southern contingent.) Pierre de Rosa and Ed Pozniak served as guides, and Pierre’s sister, Rosemary de Rosa, was the Crew 849 Advisor.
As the canoes proceeded in single file following our briefing, it was hard to believe the river was about to drastically change personality. Until now, the journey had been quite tame. The water level was so low in these first two weeks of August that we had already paddled through two sets of rapids that would normally require portaging. But now all eyes scoured the left bank for the safe passage around the falls.
We shouldn’t have worried. A small, billboard-sized sign soon appeared with red and white capital letters: “WARNING—THUNDERHOUSE FALLS, PORTAGE 500 METERS ON LEFT.”
Just past the sign a black bear cub scurried down to the bank, watched us paddle by, and then scampered back into the woods. When we finally reached the trail, there was only one obstacle in our way—30 yards of dry riverbed. It made the one-mile portage that much longer.
Canoeing’s dark side
If the thrill of whitewater paddling comes from the quickening heartbeat of slicing through roiling rapids, then portaging is surely the dark side of canoeing. For instance, a one-mile portage isn’t simply one mile. Heavy dry bags filled with personal gear, tents, food, and cooking supplies are removed from the canoes and carried to the end of the trail—one mile. Then there is the return trip to get the canoe—two miles. By the time the canoe reaches the end of the trail, the total distance equals three miles.
Cristian Fortier, John McCarthy, and Pat Cuda eat lunch above Thunderhouse Falls.
At least this trek provided a spectacular view of the falls from a bluff nearly 150 feet above the river. From here we could look into the canyon and see how the wide Missinaibi squeezed into a narrow chute before plummeting in a three-stage drop that created a roaring, foaming cauldron of water.
Not only is Thunderhouse Falls the Missinaibi’s most noted landmark, it also marks a geological boundary between the upper Canadian Shield composed of rugged Precambrian rock and the James Bay lowlands. From here, the river drops quickly—about 27 feet per mile over the next nine miles. The scenery changes as well with the boreal forest along the river’s upper stretches giving way to a thick cover of muskeg that continues for the rest of the trip.
The monster portage
With the canoes reloaded, we paddled another six miles before camping at the trailhead of our most challenging and, thankfully, final portage.
Ideally, a portage consists of one person carrying the canoe while his or her paddling partner carries the gear—all in one trek. In our case, there was simply too much gear, too little strength, and too far to slog.
The trail was three miles long, but when you figured in the “portage math multiplier,” the total distance was nearly nine miles.
We began at 7:40 in the morning and finished at 1 p.m. To make the trek manageable, we brought everything to the trail’s halfway point in two back-and-forth stages and repeated the process to move the gear to the end. Some in our group found novel ways to psych themselves up for the task.
Guide Ed Pozniak carried one of the 17-foot canoes and then returned to carry a second. He maintained a steady cadence by reciting the Rosary.
“You’ve got this 65-pound boat balanced on your shoulders,” he said, “and all you can see is your feet below and the inside of the canoe in front. It’s incredibly boring, and yet you’ve got to focus on where you step so you don’t get stuck in the mud or wander off the trail.
Rosemary de Rosa backpaddles in the bow as Cristina de Rosa steers their canoe toward a rapid.
“It takes me about 15 minutes to say the Rosary, and I just keep repeating it. It occupies my mind, and I’ve found it makes a portage go a whole lot faster.”
Scout Pat Cuda passed the time by singing “Happy Birthday”—in Spanish. And the Texans, Doug and Jack, chanted the theme music from the movie “Rocky.”
“I figured if Sylvester Stallone could run up the steps of Philadelphia’s art museum with that music in the background, Jack and I could make it to the trail’s end with our canoe,” said Doug.
This was our shortest day on the river in terms of distance, a disappointing 6.2 miles. In four days we had paddled less than 45 miles downriver from Mattice, and we were far behind schedule. We only had six more days to reach Moosonee so we could catch a train for our trip home. That was 160 miles away. Unless we found deeper water with a current, there was a possibility we might not make it on time.
That night we camped on a steep bank above the river. We cooked dinner, ate, and washed up moments before a heavy downpour. Everyone dove into his or her tent. Exhausted, we fell asleep to the sound of rolling thunder, punctuated by intense flashes of lightning.
Every morning we awoke to the sound of a crowing rooster. Oddly, it seemed to be following us downriver. Knowing that no henhouses were in the vicinity, I had a strong suspicion that Pierre de Rosa possessed an extraordinary vocal talent. I couldn’t confirm this, however, because I was never outside my tent in time to witness the barnyard alarm clock.
Texans Doug Daniels and Jack Harries portage their canoe on a three-mile wooded trail while chanting the theme music to the movie ”Rocky.”
Now, because we had to make up distance on the river, that alarm began sounding earlier each day. Up at 5 and on the river by 6:30. We stayed in our canoes for 10 to 11 hours a day. We paused for midmorning and afternoon snacks, but we often ate lunch in our boats without stopping to go ashore.
The river was not our friend. At each point where a tributary should have added depth and current to our cause, the source was either dried up or contributed a mere trickle. The low water exposed a riverbed filled with rock gardens and forced us to pick and choose routes that zigzagged from bank to bank searching for channels with the greatest flow of water.
In that pursuit, we discovered that an Old Town Penobscot canoe, fully loaded with two paddlers, would float in just six to eight inches of moving water. When levels dropped below that, we got out and walked alongside or “frogged” the canoes until we found deeper water.
In faster water, communication between the bowman and stern paddler was crucial. Indeed, out of seven canoes, at least five capsized at one time or another (some several times) when an unseen rock
turned a boat sideways to the current.
“The bow person has to have quick reflexes,” observed Venturer Cristina de Rosa, who paddled in front the entire trip. “You have to look out for rocks and let the person in back know where they are so your canoe doesn’t hit them.”
Because things happen so quickly when canoes head through rapids, Cristina added, the bow person needs to know several advanced paddling strokes, including the draw, cross-bow draw, and sweep. Those handy maneuvers allow canoers to swiftly switch paddling sides without changing hand positions on the paddle.
Fueling hearty appetites
Cristina and her sister, Angelica, were responsible for ordering and packaging all the food before the expedition. Were they satisfied with the results?
“Most of my camping trips have been with just girls, and we always ended up with extra food,” Cristina said. “So for this trip, I planned the exact amount of food for the number of people coming. As it turned out, everyone had enough to eat, but if I had packed extra, everybody could have eaten more and been more satisfied.”
Maybe so, but I never heard a complaint during nighttime cracker barrels when oven-baked sweet breads and fruit cobblers were served. And the precooked bacon strips rationed out several mornings at breakfast were a real treat.
By spending more time in our canoes, we began to close the schedule gap. In a one-day marathon we covered 31 miles, and our shoulders felt every one of them. The good news was if we maintained this pace, we would arrive in Moosonee on time.
Wind, rain, and rainbows
To say we had variable weather would be an understatement. It could be warm and sunny one day and cloudy with a cold drizzle the next. One memorable event was a sudden microburst of violent wind and rain that swept down upon us from behind. The rain flew sideways and with such intensity that it was difficult to see anything. Luckily, all the canoes made it to shore without capsizing, and we waited out the storm. Later, our reward was paddling toward a brilliant double rainbow, one of the most colorful I had ever seen.
Pat Cuda and Ed Pozniak paddle upriver past the Conjuring House Rock into a small canyon below Thunderhouse Falls.
We tried sailing one afternoon by rigging tarps across the front of three canoes rafted together, but it wasn’t very efficient. We could have paddled almost as fast. However, it was a welcome diversion from the repetitive dip-and-swing, dip-and-swing motion of our arms and shoulders.
Some of our campsites were on sandbars or islands in the middle of the river. These spots usually had more evening breeze and therefore reduced the number of flying insects that were so thick in the tall grasses of shoreline campsites.
But sandbars could provide their own perils. Once, shortly before going to bed, someone fortunately noticed that our empty canoes, which had been beached, were floating out into the river. An earlier two-day rain had caused the river to rise. We quickly retrieved our craft and hauled them even further up onto dry land. Some tents that had been originally pitched far from the water’s edge had to be relocated to avoid being flooded overnight.
The final two days on the river sucked the remaining strength from our bodies. We passed a tributary, the Mattagami River, which actually had water flowing from it. We finally had plenty of water, but we faced a fierce headwind. There was nothing one could do but lean into it and continue paddling.
Les hommes du nord
We were getting closer. The river’s delta spread wide as it approached the saltwater tides of James Bay. At 1:30 in the afternoon, our 10th day on the river, we reached our final campsite, Tidewater Provincial Park, which lies between the historic voyageur outposts of Moosonee and Moose Factory.
After a long rest, Pierre de Rosa assembled the group for his Le Baptême du Voyageur (Voyageur Baptism) ceremony. In both French and English, he praised the crew for their skill and bravery in navigating “70 leagues” (more than 200 miles) on the Missinaibi—and “making it to the end alive!” Then he solicited several vows, including one “to never kiss another voyageur’s wife without her permission.” And lastly, while sprinkling the group with river water from the bough of a northern white cedar, he pronounced us all “les hommes du nord,” men of the North.
The next morning we loaded canoes onto the Ontario Northland’s Little Bear train and settled in for the 186-mile trip south to Cochrane, Ontario, where our group’s vehicles had been shuttled.
For part of the trip, Joe de Rosa sat next to me. He said: “You know, the Missinaibi was a return trip for my dad, and it was just great to be out there with him. He first canoed the river 25 years ago.”
Joe continued: “The adults in Scouting really make a difference, because good leaders help provide exciting programs for their Scouts. I think my dad is one of the best leaders, because he made this trip happen.”
That would be high praise for any river guide. What made it even more heart-warming for Pierre de Rosa was hearing it from his own teenage son.
Scott Daniels is the executive editor of Scouting magazine.
ON THE WEB: Go to www.scoutingmagazine.org/issues/0305/a-oneb.html to read Scott Daniels’ account of another aquatic adventure by Scouts and Venturers, on Idaho’s Lower Salmon River.
Birchbark Expeditions: High Adventure