Low water but high spirits on the West Fork of Ontario’s Spanish River. Words & photos :: Colin Field.
The first time I heard about the Spanish River canoe route it instantly made my must-do river list. There are a few of them in Canada: the Nahanni, the Petawawa, the French, the Dumoine… rivers that earn you your paddling stripes. The most intriguing part of the Spanish? The shuttle vehicle is a train.
Colloquially known as the Budd Car, the Sudbury to White River train line features a couple freight cars that carry your gear. From downtown Sudbury you load your canoe and gear into one of the freight cars with a little help from a railway employee. It’s $50 per canoe and, as far as I can tell, as much equipment as you want. We had eight days worth of food for our crew of 11, five canoes and not enough beer.
Tales abound of the good old days, when you could ride anywhere in the train: the luggage car, the engineer cabin, your choice. Legend has it that beer flowed and good times ensued; those days are long gone. Now, after loading your gear, you ride in the air-conditioned cabin and simply choose one of the seemingly random places to stop along the route. We laughed and joked with nervous excitement the entire time while looking at maps and watching the beautiful scenery flowing by. The track paralleled the Spanish River for much of the way until our chosen stop at Sinker Creek, a middle-of-nowhere spot a kilometre or so from the Spanish proper. We’d opted to do the West Fork of the Spanish, hoping for as much whitewater as possible.
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The Spanish River’s name is said to come from French explorers who met Spanish-speaking Ojibwe people in the region. Apparently the Ojibwe learned the language from a woman they took captive on a southern expedition. This also led to the names of nearby towns of Espanola and Spanish.
For the next six days we paddled downstream. We swam, ate great food, cemented friendships, played guitar and laughed. We laughed a lot. We saw bears, moose, beavers and one of the families got an intimate few minutes with a bobcat. And while the water levels were at a record low, we were still able to paddle most of the rapids.
The crux of the West Fork of the Spanish River was the mighty and aptly named C3 Rapids. Aptly named because they are Class III whitewater: 400 metres of rocks, turns, braids and shelves. We’d known about these rapids since looking at maps, but we were finally here. Unfortunately, water levels were too low to paddle it. But instead of unloading and portaging (avoid the p-word at all costs!) we decided to line the boats. With a rope on each end of the canoe, we walked the boats downstream—easier said than done.
It was an ankle-breaking affair as we swam/walked/dragged behind/beside and sometimes under our boats. Pulling and pushing over rocks and between each other, it took forever. It was stressful and it was exhausting. But we made it through without dumping. While we practiced the “take only pictures leave only footprints” ethos, we definitely left some multi-coloured Royalex in the C3 Rapids.
This was our fourth annual dad trip. Each trip adds to the legend, the myths of past canoe trips. Remember the time Rocky ate a thunderbox full of poo? Or the time we nicknamed one of the kids Cliff? How about that time we got busted by park wardens and had to pour out our beer? It becomes a lexicon of sorts. A type of shared language that a limited few understand.
On our final day we paddled the 20-kilometre Royal Ride, a meandering downhill rollercoaster of swifts and mild Class I rapids. In other words, an absolute blast. Being in the last boat, I could look down the valley and watch each canoe as it went left, then right, perpendicular to the valley’s downhill trend. It was beautiful and inevitably led to introspection.
I’ve always said that kids thrive on the river, but so do adults. There’s something about following the current downhill, listening to the roar of the river. It’s like a constant reminder of time: Water always flows. And as we age, the yearly river trip is a constant of sorts. An important constant. It’s a reminder of who we are and what’s important, a full reset. There are no screens, no updates and no opportunities to gather likes or thumbs-up from strangers. FOMO is non-existent and media-induced fear of the world around us dissipates.
I will forever treasure our river trips and hope to continue them long into the future. The Spanish is one river I suspect we’ll return to: The East Fork is calling our name. Even in low water we absolutely loved this river. The train trip was just under two hours long, but it was a surprisingly memorable part of the week-long trip. And in my opinion, every Canadian paddler should descend it.
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