As we came to the northernmost lake on our route, we faced the most difficult portage of the trip. Our map said the portage could be particularly muddy, but neither of us expected a half-mile slog through muskeg. Unable to carry the canoe on our backs, we pulled it across the mud, sinking to our knees with each step, and sometimes to our waists. Meanwhile, blackflies and mosquitoes erupted from disturbed pools of stagnant water and did their best to drive us insane. Several times, we mired in the bog and our shoes slipped from our feet. That evening, we went for a swim to wash caked mud from our legs and scrub the musk of pike from our hands. Anywhere else, that might have been a burden; deep in Temagami, it was the look and smell of success.
As we turned south, a sudden change in terrain was striking. On the northern stretch, we paddled across expansive glacial lakes with wooded banks that gradually stretched into the distance. Now the land closed in. The lakes became narrow and shallow with expansive lily-choked marshes. Besides the occasional floatplane overhead, we saw more signs of moose than people. The next few days, we understood, would take us through the world’s largest stand of old-growth red pine, and some of Temagami’s most remote territory.
The following day, we paddled down narrow chutes, casting under overhanging ledges and gnarly, outstretched cedars that jutted from the sides of towering rock walls. At times, the banks constricted so tightly that our canoe barely fit between them. Then they would suddenly open into long, slender lakes. The smallmouth fishing reflected this rugged environment. Whatever we threw, they crushed. As the day came to an end, we tied our canoe to a tamarack and walked up the granite bank, looking for a place to pitch the tent. From that vantage, Jerrod spotted a group of smallmouth milling around a beaver lodge, just a cast-length away. We scrambled down the rock embankment, fly rods in tow, and caught fish after fish, keeping several for dinner. Later that evening, as fresh bass roasted in the fire, the northern lights sent green and purple reflections down the length of the lake. With two days left, we walked the canoe down a meandering creek and then bushwhacked through a historic overgrown portage. When we emerged from the timber, the sky opened to reveal a beautiful, island-studded lake.
We immediately wanted to spend the entire day exploring it. That meant the next day would require a big push to complete our loop, but the fishing, we learned, proved worth the effort. We found smallmouths concentrated off rock points adjacent to deeper water. On our way from island to island, we stopped at each point, caught a few fish, and then continued on our way. Stripping flies into deeper water, we watched fish charge from below and follow the fly, sometimes not eating until right next to the canoe.
The next morning, we woke to the sound of our rainfly snapping in the wind. Anyone who’s spent much time in a canoe knows that big winds and canoes go together like oil and water. Two smaller lakes in our path wouldn’t be a problem, but the final lake—requiring seven miles of paddling into 30-mile-per-hour winds—would challenge us. Trips like ours are often about earning it. If you want to escape the crowds, you must do things others can’t or won’t do. We paid our dues on that last day, which turned out to be a “sufferfest” of hard paddling. However, halfway through the day, we stopped for lunch at a vertical rock face offering shelter from the wind. We were stoked to find a series of red ocher pictographs painted on the face of that rock. Staring at renditions of moose, beaver, and humans—stained into the rock thousands of years ago—reminded me that Temagami is viewed as a northern wilderness adventure ground, and also as sacred landscape.
Many people claim that wilderness trips clear their minds and prepare them for a return to the world of cell phones, emails, and commuter traffic. Honestly, all wilderness prepares you for is more wilderness. Once you get out there, in Temagami or some other remote area, 10-day trips are always better as 12. Twelve-day trips are better as two-week-long adventures . . . and so on. Temagami—with its ancient pine forests, rock-lined streams, wildly beautiful lakes, and those eager northerns and smallies—leaves an impression. As we finished our paddle and hauled our gear back to the truck, all we wanted was more.
Ryan Sparks writes, fishes, hunts, cooks, and talks nonsense to his English pointer, Tippet. You can follow his writing, photography, and adventures at www.flywatermedley.com.