The Irondale & Burnt Rivers
I am interrupting my posts about 2013’s canoe challenge, to relive some great memories of last year’s spring river trip with a few friends.
May 6 & 7, 2012
Over the winter, a few friends and I started talking about doing a spring canoe trip that involved a fun amount of whitewater. I did quite a bit of research on some rivers that were fairly accessible from southern Ontario, but still offered a little bit of fun. I zeroed in on the Irondale and Burnt Rivers. A couple of descriptions I found made them sound perfect for us – lots of class I and II rapids and only a few necessary portages. All of us were experienced paddlers, but a couple of people had limited whitewater experience. We were also going to be paddling canoes, that although made of Roylex, had hull designs more fitting for lake and easy river paddling. Neither the Mad River Express nor the Mad River Horizon have very much rocker and, therefore lack the manoeuvrability needed for serious whitewater.
As I tried to research the rivers, I started getting a little frustrated with the trouble I had getting really up to date information. I started to get the sense that few people had canoed these rivers recently. About a month and a half before our scheduled trip, a CCR (Canadian Canoe Routes) member, named magicman, came through with very detailed descriptions of all the rapids/portages and where to find the one campsite. His information affirmed that these were the right rivers for our group. The rapid/portage numbers I use in the trip report are the ones that magicman used from the original route map.
Matt, Youri, Jason and I headed up to a little motel just north of Kinmount, Friday night after work. The motel was full of ATVers, and they assumed we were there for some kind of ATV event. Our canoes garnered us some strange looks from that crowd!
Saturday, May 6
In the morning, we headed down to Minden to search for a little diner. We found one downtown and went in for a hearty breakfast. The breakfast was quick and filling, but it was the atmosphere that made the meal an experience. From the moment we walked in, a local old-timer named Dan teased us and regaled us with stories. First it was to tease us about wearing “black fly” pants, aka, shorts. I had pants with me, but I was pretty sure we’d be okay with shorts. It was still early May. I figured that it would be about another week, before the black flies were out in full force. Dan wouldn’t be persuaded, though. He was sure that we were going to be eaten alive! When his good-natured teasing subsided, we told him we were going to canoe the Irondale and Burnt Rivers. He seemed a little surprised and asked us a few questions about our plans. He told us that he wasn’t sure that it was possible to canoe from Gooderham to Kinmount. As the guy who had suggested the route, Dan’s doubts didn’t sit well with me! Dan then discovered that Jason was a lineman, as he had been before he retired. He went on to tell Jason many stories from his career. Most seemed centred around the themes of hard work and danger. It was quite an enjoyable meal, but the day was passing us by, as we lingered to listen to Dan. I was itching to get away and get on the river. After we made our farewells, and endured a final teasing comment from Dan about our shorts, Jason and I dropped Youri, Matt, Princess and all our gear off at our starting point in Gooderham. We drove to Kinmount to leave my car at the take-out and headed back to Gooderham to finally start our trip.
Youri’s daughter sent us Reepicheep to lead and guide us. This brave mouse was the first one down every rapid!
By the time we were loaded and on the river, it was 11 am. I was a little concerned with our late start, but very happy to be underway! Youri, who has the most white water experience in our group and I took the sterns. Jason paddled in my bow, while Matt paddled in Youri’s bow. Youri’s dog, Princess, alternated between running along the bank, swimming and getting in the canoe. She ran and swam a lot more than she rode! The Irondale near Gooderham is fairly narrow and a bit twisty. As we paddled, Youri fished a bit. In anticipation of the rapids we knew were soon to come, Jason and I talked about paddling manoeuvres and practised an eddy turn around a large rock.
Soon the first set of rapids was upon us (#6). We pulled up to the portage to scout it. This was the first opportunity we had to see how accurate magicman’s descriptions were. They were bang on! Class II, with a calm spot in the middle and runnable at medium flow. The four of us carefully picked the best route. Jason and I talked about the draws he’d need to do at specific locations and what to do if things didn’t go as planned. We watched Youri and Matt successfully do the run. Then we hopped into our canoe and pushed off, with a sense excitement tinged with a little apprehension. The first half was a pretty straight shot, with only a couple of boulders to avoid. We had time for a couple of deep breaths to calm ourselves, before we entered the second, more challenging portion. The river turns right and you have to get your boat turned to avoid smashing into rocks. That part went very smoothly. As soon as the turn was made, we needed to perform a quick left turn to negotiate a sharper than 90 degree bend. Jason was in the bow, drawing with all his might, while I did my best to swing the stern around, but we didn’t seem to be turning fast enough to avoid the large, sloping rock right in front of us! Just as the current washed us up onto the pillow the water formed on the sloping rock, we finally got the canoe turned. Then we both dug our paddles into the deep water on our left, and with a strong pull, shot forward, without so much as a scratch! We let out a couple of whoops and paddled up to Youri and Matt. We congratulated each other and excitedly recounted our successes. Jason shared that, although he clearly understood the plan, he was a little surprised that we could actually make the canoe go where we wanted it to in the rapids. I’m glad he told me that after we had run them! Knowing that my bowman had doubts about our chances wouldn’t have instilled confidence in me, especially since I had been quite apprehensive myself!
We paddled for quite a while on the meandering river before coming to the second set of rapids (#7) on our journey. There was a ledge, that we portaged around, but then we put in and ran the last couple of hundred metres. It ended with a sharp turn to the right to avoid some rocks, a manoeuvre that Jason and I handled easily, after our earlier triumph. Ironically, after successfully negotiating the rapids, we got both canoes stuck on the riverbed, in low water on river left. Youri and Matt, had let their canoe drift into the shallows when they turned to watch Jason and I negotiate the rapids. After we had run them, we coasted in to where the other guys were waiting for us and soon ran aground. It was a little embarrassing!
We stopped for lunch along the bank of the river. We made sandwiches – sliced meat on pitas with veggies and humus. We also chose from a nice selection of cold beverages that Matt had brought. Youri fished a little, but without success. When we pushed off, our paddling and scouting settled into a familiar pattern. Jason and I paddled ahead a bit, while Youri and Matt came along a little more slowly, so Youri could fish. When we got to a set of rapids, things changed. Youri became the leader. He was eager and willing to run almost anything. I was more cautious but still excited. Matt and Jason seemed to trust in our experience and followed our lead.
The third rapid (#8) was little more than a swift or fairly easy class I, that only needed minor manoeuvring. It was possible to see the entire set from the canoe, so we ran it without scouting. The next two sets of rapids (#9) and (#10) were pretty close together and fairly straight-forward. We ran those without scouting them, as well. We were coming to really appreciate magicman’s notes. They were extremely accurate! We scouted the day’s sixth set of rapids (#11), because of magicman’s warning about a ledge. The ledge wasn’t that tall and the rest of the rapid seemed quite easy, so we decided to run them. Again, Youri and Matt went first, while Jason and I followed. Both of our bows just dipped under the water, as we dropped off the ledge, but they popped up quickly, and we only took on a minimal amount of water. There were also a couple of rocks that were easily avoided.
There was an easy swift (#12) just before the Devil’s Gap. We ran the swift and then did our second portage of the day around the Gap (#13).
Soon after we started the portage, we came out onto an old rail trail. Over the winter, a birch tree had fallen across the path. We pulled out a saw and cut a few branches, in order to clear a pathway. During the portage, we explored the falls and took a few pictures. We dropped our gear beside the river, in front of the cottage/house that was under construction and scouted the second half of the rapids (#14). It was a very runnable class II. I wanted to get a video of Matt and Youri running the set, but they took off, before I got the camera out. There were a few turns needed, in order to stay in the current and avoid a few rocks. Jason and I handled them flawlessly!
As soon as we exited the rapids, we saw the campsite sign on river left. Jason and I practised ferrying at the base of the rapids, while Youri and Matt fished. When we landed and investigated the campsite, we discovered that it was underwhelming. I’m glad that Kawartha Lakes and Halliburton are taking steps to re-establish the rivers as a viable canoe route, but a little more work on the campsite would have been nice. On the plus side, there was a brand new thunder box that Youri promptly christened. That’s the end of the plus side. There was no fire pit, so Matt dug a fire pit near the river and found some rocks to ring it, while Jason and Youri searched for fire wood. The only flat spot on the site, which we assumed was the tent pad, was overgrown, so I did my best to clear it, before setting up the tent. We cooked sausages, potatoes and onions for supper. I also baked a carrot-pumpkin cake in my Dutch oven, but I burned the bottom of it a bit. It was still good. We fished a bit, but didn’t catch anything. We also had a nice fire and a little Jameson Irish whiskey, before bed. We turned in around 10 pm.
Sunday, May 7
I had a lot of trouble sleeping last night. Yesterday morning, I woke up in the motel with a stuffy nose and clogged sinuses. By the time we went to bed last night, it was a full-blown head cold. I had trouble lying down. My nose kept plugging and I had to blow it repeatedly. I was trying to be quiet, but my nose honks when I blow it, so I was concerned about keeping the other guys awake. I got up around midnight (without having slept a wink), got dressed warmly and built a fire. I sat outside looking at the clear, bright night sky until about 3 am. The moon was pretty full, and it was bright enough to walk around without a headlamp. Princess came out of the vestibule and stayed with me for a while, but after she realized that there was going to be no food offered, she deserted me around 1 am and returned to the relative warmth of the vestibule. It was a pretty cool night. Even the warmth of the fire and the fact that I was wearing almost all my clothes, didn’t always stave off the chill. I got up periodically and did jumping jacks to get my blood flowing and stoke my internal furnace. When I did go back to bed at 3 am, I was able to fall asleep, but I woke up frequently with a plugged nose. I figure that I had slept for about three hours by the time we got up at 7:30 am.
We had a bit of a lazy breakfast, that included three cups of coffee for me! We dined on fried eggs, ham and cheese on English muffins. By the time we were cleaned up, packed and back on the water, it was ten o’clock. We switched bowmen for the day and set off, eagerly anticipating another fun day of running rapids! The information we had on the day’s first set of rapids (#15) said that it needed to be portaged, but we scouted it, because it looked runnable to us. Magicman was right again! The rapids ended with a fairly tall ledge and there didn’t appear to be a good place to stop, so that you could run the rapids and pull up before the ledge. We did the 215 m portage. We were able to line the canoes down the next set of rapids (#16), even though there was a ledge. Lining is always preferable to portaging, in my books! We scouted the day’s third set of rapids (#17) and were happy to find they were runnable. We chose a line and talked about the necessary manoeuvres. Matt had paddled brilliantly with Youri the day before, but I had become used to Jason’s paddling rhythm and felt that I could anticipate what he was going to do. We had worked so well together! I was a little apprehensive, as Matt and I paddled toward the rushing water, but everything worked out wonderfully. Matt performed the draws admirably and made good calls, to avoid a submerged rock we hadn’t seen from the bank. We got through the rapid, with only a tiny scrape.
We paddled along the calm, winding river, until we reached the last set of runnable rapids (#18) on the trip. This was the one set of rapids that magicman was unsure about, so we stopped to have a look at it. It was a short set, but had a couple of challenging features. The river takes a sharp 90 degree bend to the left, right at the top of the rapids. It also narrows considerably, due to boulders on the left and an old concrete bridge foundation on both sides. The only possible line through the rapids is down a very narrow, but fast-moving chute, on river right, beside the bridge foundation. There are also some wooden pilings that block a straight approach to the chute, so some manoeuvring is needed just before you drop into the powerful current of the chute. The chute dropped the level of the river several feet, but was runnable, because of the immense volume of water rushing down the channel. There was no ledge or circulating water at the bottom. Youri and Jason went first. They went through the middle of the pilings, turned their boat right and headed for the chute, as they tried to swing the canoe left, in order to have it straightened, before they dropped into the chute. They almost made it. The boat wasn’t quite straight, as Jason dropped into the current. Youri was prying off the left side of the canoe. There was nowhere to paddle on the right side of the boat, so Jason leaned out a bit and did a draw on the left side, in order to try to straighten them. The combination of the pry, lean and draw, all on the left, was too much! The gunwale went under and they flipped in a fraction of a second. As Matt and I ran along the bank to see if they were okay, they both quickly bobbed to the surface, in the calmer water, a little upstream of the canoe. They were able to retrieve their canoe and most of the gear. They only lost a small barrel and a paddle. Matt and I headed back to have our go at it. As we hopped into the canoe and pushed off, I explained that I wanted to take a slightly different approach. We passed between the left bank and the first piling and were able to make the right turn, in the calmer water the inside bend and the sheltering boulders provided. This gave us a couple of extra seconds and a few more feet, to make the left turn, before we started dropping into the chute. It worked. We had the canoe arrow straight, as we dropped in, and the powerful current shot us forward and passed our friends. We paddled down the river and retrieved the barrel and paddle the guys had lost. Going second has some benefits, like learning from your buddies’ errors! Jason and Youri insisted they were fine. The sun was out, and even though the water was cold, they decided to paddle on and let their wet clothes dry on their backs.
We stopped for lunch a little before Furnace Falls. After lunch, Matt and I pushed off first, while Jason and Youri finally decided to get changed into dry clothing and got Princess into their boat. Princess seemed a bit tired from running most of yesterday and this morning. She rode a lot this afternoon. Matt and I scouted Furnace Falls (#19) and decided to line them. Youri and Jason arrived, just as we were getting started. I got back in our canoe and paddled ahead a little, to get to a dry rock ledge just before the rapid started. I hopped out on the rock and tossed the bow line to Matt, who stayed up on the bank. I stayed down on the rocks, with the stern line. The lining went very well. It was even a little fun, because the current was strong. Some people came up, as we were finishing and chatted with us a bit. They were the first people we had seen during the trip. They seemed interested that we were canoeing the river. One older woman kept telling us to be careful. It was a little humorous to us, because all of the whitewater was finished. If the purpose of your trip is to run rapids, it would be possible to end the trip here. It would make for an early day, but if you have a long drive home, you’d be able to make an early start of it. However, there are a couple of beautiful waterfalls between Furnace Falls and Kinmount. We pushed on, to complete the trip to Kinmount.
The next portage (#20) was around an un-runnable, un-linable waterfall. We did the portage quickly and got back into our boats. We knew we had a long afternoon of paddling ahead of us, so we weren’t interested in wasting any time. After the Irondale River flowed into the Burnt River, we came to Three Brothers Falls. Three Brothers Falls are spectacular! There are three separate drops, and the volume of water flowing over them is impressive. The portage is over 300 metres, but it follows a dirt road, so it’s pretty flat. The ending is a bit challenging, though. The trail leaves the road and heads down a steep bank to the river. When you get to level ground, there are a lot of fallen trees to scramble over, in order to get to the river – not an easy task with a canoe on your shoulders!
The local wildlife!
With the rapids and portages behind us, we had only flat water between us and our destination. By now, it was 5 pm, so we put our backs and shoulders into it and paddled hard for Kinmount. The landscape changes a bit, shortly after Three Brothers Falls. The terrain is flat and goes through some farm land. We were a bit shocked to see sheep grazing along the river bank. There is a bit of navigation to do. The flat landscape causes the wide river to separate into different channels at times. We were able to pick the correct paths, by looking for what little current there was and following it. We arrived at Kinmount just before 6 pm.
Jason and I drove to Gooderham to pick up his car, while Matt and Youri unloaded gear and ordered Chinese food and beer at a local restaurant. We had a nice meal together, as we recounted the weekend’s adventures, but I was already missing the feel of my paddle slicing through the calm waters, the adrenaline rush of the canoe careening down the rapids on the edge of control and the serenity of sitting by the campfire sipping the whiskey.