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Obabika South to North to South: A Canoe Trip to Meet Alex Mathias

- Day 1 -

The dark grey clouds are looking as though they’re just about to give way as I drive up highway 805. Sam is holding her phone in her hand looking at Jeff’s map determining how far we are from where we’ll leave the car for five-days.

Plunk. Plunk.

The rain starts coming down on my windshield as the loose gravel continues to ping against the side of the car. We follow the road for a few more kilometres, veering to the left, until we find the start of the portage that we’re looking for.

We unload the car in the pouring rain, Sam can’t find the rain cover for her pack, so we move a few of her items into the drybag. Canoe, pack, camera gear, food barrel, cooler, and gifts for Alex. Check. I lock the car, tuck my keys away safely in the top of my pack, and start throwing bags over my shoulders. Sam carries as much as she can, I throw the canoe overhead and we start walking towards Pond Lake.

The rain is heavy, but our raincoats are keeping us sort of dry. A few hundred metres and we reach the Southern shoreline. I put the canoe in, load it, Sam gets in, and we take the first paddle strokes of the trip.

It’s the best feeling. Finally starting the trip. All the stresses of planning, the anticipation of getting out into the bush, and all the business of the last few weeks wash away. I welcome the rain. We both smile, let out a deep breath, and continue paddling towards the north end of the lake where we’re looking to find the portage.

There’s two options. Of course, we take the wrong one. At least we realize it right away, turn back around, reload the canoe, and start paddling towards the right one. We get out again, unload everything, and Sam realizes that the top half of the fishing rod is missing.

Sam’s frustrated and upset. This is only her second canoe trip ever, and I don’t exactly pick the easiest, well travelled, defined routes. We have a reality check kind of talk about how shit goes wrong, and how we just have to deal with it, collect ourselves, and move on.

We put the canoe back in the water, hop back in, and paddle back to the first portage. Sam gets out and finds it on the trail. Lesson learned for both of us about securing down every little thing. We get back to the right portage, start loading our gear overhead, and begin trudging through the woods.

It’s wet, buggy, and full of deadfall and snags.

We make it to the end of the portage, and there’s a lodge. Clearly private property. We checked earlier on Jeff’s map, and there was a note that said something along the lines of “the lodge claims this is private property, but it’s not.”

It looks like there once was a section of the portage just west of the lodge that we could have used, but the deadfall has claimed it.

We double back for the rest of our gear and decide, apologetically, that the best course of action is to swiftly cut through the lodge’s property, make sure we don’t disturb anyone, and put our canoe in at the southern tip of Obabika Lake.

Moving quickly we get it done, and decide to look for an alternative way to return to the car in five-days time. Respecting private property is a necessity as a tripper.

Finally we’re on Obabika Lake. This is where we’ll spend the next few nights as we make our way North to visit Temagami elder Alex Mathias. The case of beer and cigarettes that we purchased for him are sitting in the canoe.

We paddle continuously along Obabika Lake. Not for long. We decide that today will be a short paddle. The rain stops, meaning we can hang up a clothesline for our wet clothes when we stop to set up camp.

There’s a beautiful island urging us to make it home for the night. Sam stops paddling and I steer us into a nice opening in the rock shores of the island where we can hop out of the canoe, gather our belongings, and set up camp.

I set up the tent while Sam starts organizing some of our gear. We meet in the middle and decide that it’s dinner time. Night one, fajitas. Our fresh vegetables and meats are wrapped in cheesecloth soaked in vinegar to keep them from spoiling. We pull a pepper, a red onion, olive oil, tortillas, and three chicken-turkey sausages out of the food barrel.

We opt for the camp stove; an easier solution than making a fire with damp wood.

Twist, twist, spark, whoosh! The camp stove is on, there’s oil sizzling in the pan. Sam chops the vegetables and the sausage and loads them into the pan. The smell is incredible. I stir them all up together, toss in a bit of seasoning, and once they’re cooked turn off the stove.

Hunger really is the best spice. We devour countless fajitas, and watch Obabika Lake paint us a picture-perfect sunset of blues and purples. Sunsets really are more beautiful after a storm.

Without the smoke from a fire, the mosquitos are bad, so we make our way into the tent to end the night. We’re facing East, waiting to be woken by the rising sun.

- Day 2 -

As planned, the sun rising over the mixed tree-line dominated by pine wakes us up just after 6:00 a.m. I slowly get out of my sleeping bag, put my clothes on, and unzip the tent to step out into the damp grass and catch a glimpse of a beautiful sunny day in the Temagami backcountry.

Sam joins me, and we soak in the beauty of the day for a few minutes before the need for coffee grows stronger. We head to the food barrel. I grab the stove that we had re-packed after last night’s dinner, a pot to boil water, the stainless steel french press, and of course the coffee. For this trip I decided to pre-grind the coffee. On most trips, I bring a hand grinder and beans to enjoy a perfectly fresh cup in the backcountry. This will do though.

I pour the coffee into my Kuksa followed by Sam’s mug thus concluding the perfect recipe for relaxation. We enjoy our coffees with the beautiful vista. After our first cup, we begin making breakfast. Bacon, bannock cooked in bacon grease, and avocado. Absolutely delicious.

Full of a hearty meal and enough coffee for a small family, we load the canoe and take off. We don’t have a solid plan of where we want to end up today, we just know that we want to be relatively close to Alex Mathias’ homestead at the mouth of the Obabika river.

Morning paddles are always beautiful. The world is waking up. The air is cooler, but you can feel the heat of the sun starting to warm up the day. There's a silence as if the world is rendering. The wind hasn’t picked up yet. The only sounds are the rhythmic dip of the paddle into the water. Every time I pull my paddle out of the water I listen to the small beads of water dripping off the blade and back into the lake.

After about an hour, we run into our first bit of wildlife; a loon. It’s about 30 metres in front of us, diving into the water to catch fish. We put our paddles across the gunwales of the canoe, sit, and watch it for a few minutes until it swims too far away to see clearly.

We make our way further north to a large exposed cliff of rock strewn with boulders on the bottom and in the water nearby. We get as close as possible to the rock; there’s a pictograph here: a painting done in red ochre thousands of years ago by the original inhabitants of these lands, the Teme-Augama Anishnabae people.

Sam makes out two people in the faded paint on the rock. I don’t see much in terms of shape, but can clearly see the red ochre. We stare at it for a while. It’s beautiful. It feels like staring into the past, when life was simple, just food, family, friends, water, shelter, and trade. The Temagami region feels ancient. There’s a spirit here, and you feel it's pull as strongly as ever when looking at the Indigenous art work of an inspired individual from thousands of years ago.

I bring up some indigenous history that I’ve read in a book, and Sam and I begin talking about what Canada may have looked like if European settlers hadn’t wrought so much havoc on the Indigenous peoples, but instead learned from them, and adopted their ways of life.

I think it would be better. We would have a society that respects the land, appreciates our place within nature, and our responsibility as stewards to protect it. Learning about Indigenous cultures, practices and customs has made me strongly connect to their value systems. What would Canada look like if everyone shared those values?

The blade of Sam’s paddle pushes through the water on the starboard side of the canoe and swings back over the water to begin the cycle again. To the Northwest we spot two beautiful sandy beaches, a perfect place for lunch.

We paddle towards the beach, pull our canoe onto the sand and settle in to relax for a few hours. Where the sand meets the trees we find wild blueberries. We start to snack on them, picking one after another, but being mindful to leave plenty for the next people who come after us. I pick up some driftwood from along the shore, dig a small hole in the sand, and place it over some birchbark that I had in my pocket.

Swoosh - the spark flies off the end of my ferro rod, hits the birchbark, and we have a beach fire to cook some spider-dogs for lunch.

The horse flies are swarming and we're swatting. I swat at one on the side of my head, but it isn't a horse fly, it's a hornet. It stings me in the temple. That's just life in the backcountry.

After a short swim we pack up and paddle around the bend. It's the middle of the day now and the winds are picking up. We decide not to push much further and set up camp on a beautiful north-facing point with a rocky beach. We relax for a few hours and take time to soak it all in and walk along the beach. I open the food barrel and grab the supplies I need to make some freeze-dried pad-thai for a second lunch. Karen from Temagami Outfitting had given us a lime when we set off, so I cut it and started to squeeze it over the noodles.

Replenished from our lunch, we crack open some beers that were surprisingly still cold, and explore our campsite. The trails behind our tent lead back quite a ways. Sam walks over to the rocks and tosses out a few casts, but nobody nibbles.

I take off deeper into the forest to search for dead trees that had fallen. I find one, pull out my saw and get to work, cutting six huge logs that would be perfect for the fire. We planned on staying here for the next two nights, so this would be plenty when mixed with kindling and other small branches littered around the forest.

Time passes, and we're ready for a feast. I packed two incredible steaks wrapped in vinegar-soaked cheesecloth before we left for our trip; and they sound pretty good right about now.

I pull them out of the food barrel, season them lightly and set them aside. Sam cuts red pepper and onion as I split two of the logs with my axe and set up a fire. Using my flint, I light some birch bark that I had found on the forest floor and begin to build a beautiful, raging fire. I fix the grill on the two highest rocks of the fire pit, where the flames were just too small to reach. I put two baked potatoes in the coals to slow cook.

I throw the steaks on the grill and hear the mouth-watering sizzle sound. Sam tosses the pan full of the pepper and onion on the grill as well. Even more sizzle, even more mouth-watering smells. One flip for each steak, and done. Mine's rare, Sam’s is medium-well.

Cue the boxed wine, and it makes for the best steak dinner I’ve ever had in my life. We're blessed with another gorgeous sunset, and stop to watch it as we pack up for the night. Tomorrow we're planning to meet Alex Mathias at his homestead.

- Day 3 -

Our breakfast was a repeat of the day before, including a delicious introspection-inspiring coffee on the rocks of our beautiful site. Today we're going to meet Alex Mathias, a Temagami Indigenous elder who lives on his family's traditional homestead on the mouth of the Obabika river. Alex is the last known Temagami Ojibwa to live off Bear Island and on his traditional hunting grounds according to some sources.

Legend has it, the Ontario Provincial Police once tried to evacuate Alex from his family's property, but Alex came out with a shotgun and told them to leave. They haven't been back since. Alex's traditional family land is now technically part of the Obabika River Provincial Park owned by the Government of Ontario.

We left the tent, and started to pack our bags for a day trip. The winds hadn't picked up yet. It was only a short 6km paddle to Alex's homestead. We made sure to pack the beer and cigarettes that we had bought for him as a gift and started our day on the water.

Somehow, we overshot and ended up at the northern end of Obabika Lake. Realizing our mistake, we started to paddle back (this time against the now growing wind) to find Alex's house. I decided not to take my camera out when we were with Alex, I wanted to listen to his stories and get to know him. We started to round a bend and saw Alex's homestead appear. I beached the canoe on his shoreline and got out of the boat. Sam followed me, and we began walking to the front door of his house.

I raised my fist to knock on his door, but before I could knock, it swung open; there was Alex. He says hello, takes the beer and cigarettes from me, and begins to lead Sam and I to a cabin at the Southern end of his property.

He says that it's cooler in there. It's a hot day, makes sense. He pulls out three chairs and we all sit down and begin talking.

Alex shared story after story of his life.


Although I would love to share the amazing stories that Alex told us; I don't have permission to share them. They're not my stories, and stories are a very personal and powerful thing.

If you do want to hear them, I'd recommend reaching out to Alex himself. He's always willing to share with anyone who is willing to put in the effort to learn and listen.

The one thing I will share, is that Alex revealed he is one of four remaining people in this world who fluently speaks the Temagami dialect of Ojibwa. The other three he claimed were in retirement homes across Ontario.


I wanted a photo with Alex, but it didn't seem right. So as planned, I left my camera in my bag. Alex told us that he had to head to a friends pig roast, but left us with his stories and knowledge of the land. He looks at Sam and I and says that he'll stop by our campsite later for a beer if he's welcome. Of course he is.

Alex leaves for his pig roast, so Sam and I hop back in our canoe. This time we're intentionally heading for the north end of Obabika Lake to see the old-growth trails.

The old-growth at the Northern end of Obabika Lake was identified by Dr. Peter Quinby and the Temagami Wilderness Society as the largest known stand of old growth White and Red Pine in the world in the 80s. This led to the clash between environmentalists, Indigenous people, and the Ontario Provincial Police known as the Red Squirrel Road blockades where environmentalists and Indigenous people fought for an end to logging the old-growth. At that time, it was the largest case of civil disobedience in Canadian history.

We reach the trails and begin hiking. It's a hot and humid day, but the thick canopy above us shields us from the sun. The forest is beautiful, full of some of the largest, thickest, pines I've ever seen in my life.

We pause at the three sisters; a group of two old-growth white pines and an old-growth red pine clustered together.

We reflect on the value of old-growth in a world where climate change is the largest concern facing our generation, and the ones that follow. Sam and I talk about the documentary I'm working on called Conserving Catchacoma. It follows the Wilderness Committee and the same Dr. Peter Quinby as they try to protect another old-growth forest, this time in Southern Ontario.

Old-growth forests play a vital role in the fight against climate change. They store vast amounts of carbon. At a time when Ontario's managed forests are contributing more carbon to the atmosphere than they're storing, it's essential that we protect them. This is where protection for old-growth started in Ontario, and I'm proud to now be an advocate for protection as well.

We continue up the trail to beautiful vistas, and slowly make our way down to Chee-skon Lake; home of the beautiful Spirit Rock. This pillar of rocks is a spiritual site to the Temagami first nation. Alex had just told us all about it. He had claimed that people felt energized when they visited it, I can see why.

The immaculate pillar of Spirit Rock rises from the rock face. You feel the spirit of the rock, the lake, and the Temagami region itself. Sam and I watch for a while, and then go for a short swim. We pack up, put our boots on, and start walking the trail back towards the canoe.

On our paddle back to our campsite, we stop to see another spiritual site of the Temagami First Nation: grandparent rocks. Two rock pillars, smaller in size than Spirit Rock, but still extraordinary.

I see something yellow in the tree line. I point it out to Sam, but she already sees them. Bald eagles. Three of them sit up in the tree looking down on us from the Eastern shoreline of Obabika Lake. I paddle quietly and follow them, watching them perch on different branches and fly to the next.

Half an hour passes. The first eagle jumps off its perch, unfurls its wings, and with a big gust of air, begins to fly across the lake to the Western shoreline. Sam and I look up baffled by the thundering sound of its wings. We have never been this close to an eagle before, let alone three. I try to take a photo, but I miss every single shot. One after another the next two eagles follow the first and they're gone.

Sam presses her paddle against the water as I craft a few j-strokes to guide as back to our camp.

Dinner time. Fettuccini Alfredo over another beautiful fire; delicious. We're blessed with a gorgeous Northern sky as the sun sets. We sit there quietly as the day fades into darkness and listen to the call of the loons finding each other in the night. It doesn't look like Alex is stopping by for a beer.

- Day 4 -

We planned day four to be a relaxing day, our only goal was to head South so that we wouldn't be too far from the portage near the lodge at the end of Obabika Lake.

I prepare coffee and breakfast while the calmness of another sunny day provides the perfect ambience for a relaxing morning. Sam and I take our time enjoying our coffee and looking North towards Obabika. We're constantly bringing up the stories that Alex shared with us, and how much we appreciate what we learned from him.

We notice a friend staring at us as we wrap up our breakfast. It's a snake in the rocks. We stop and take photos of it, then put the camera away and watch it slither around the rocks as the sun continues to heat up the day.

After packing up the tent and the rest of the gear Sam and I begin to load the canoe for our trip back to the Southern end of Obabika Lake. We planned on doing some fishing today; that was the one thing we hadn't yet experienced on the trip, a delicious fresh fish-fry.

I guide the canoe towards a set of islands that we were familiar with from our trip the year before. Sam puts out a few casts. Nothing, but we're both persistent.

I move us around to try a few different spots, eventually we hop out at an island where Sam caught a fish last year. Maybe it'll be good luck.

After tirelessly casting, Sam says she's going to throw out five more casts. I tell her I'm fairly confident that she'll have some luck with her fourth one. First cast, nothing. Second cast, nothing. Third cast, nothing. Fourth, we've got a bite! Sam reels in a decent bass and we take it to the beach to gut, clean, batter, and fry.

I cut the fish into chunks and prepare the beer batter. Sam continues to prepare the rest of our meal as I get the stove started. We could and probably should cook it over a fire for the full effect, but we're starving and want to eat quickly. First bite; it's absolutely amazing. I squeeze some lime juice on it and we make some freeze-dried pad thai. Five-star meal on a private beach? Easy.

Full from lunch we continue Southward. After five minutes, we hear the roar of a motorboat, an odd sound this deep in the backcountry. We see a boat in the distance, and in no time it closes the gap. It looks like it's coming right for us; it is!

Upon closer inspection it's Alex Mathias! He stops us and I grab hold of his boat.

"I'm glad I ran into you guys," Alex says. He tells us that he was looking for us on the lake and that he didn't stop by the night before because he slept over at his friends' place after the pig roast.

He tosses us each a cold beer. The sun is beating down. I can't put into words how amazing a cold beer is on day four of a backcountry canoe trip. Alex, Sam and I float in the middle of Obabika Lake talking for at least half an hour.

Alex shares some more stories about his life and tells us to come by anytime; we're more than welcome to stay at his guest cabin. We say our goodbyes and I tell him that I'll likely visit him in September. It's nice to have made a friend like Alex, I'm excited to see him again.

Sam and I paddle on. We stop once for a break when the winds pick up, but otherwise power through and make it all the way back to our first campsite. A familiar site to stay the night.

I light a roaring fire, we cook up our last dinner of the trip. Sam loves the wildflowers near our tent, I snap a few pictures for her and head to bed full and content.

- Day 5 -

Our last morning in Temagami. Like a broken record I tell Sam how coffee and breakfast taste better in the backcountry, especially when looking at the sunrise and listening to the sounds of the birds as they wake up. I joke that I wish we could transport ourselves to this island for breakfast every morning. The slow-paced life of wilderness travel makes you truly live in the moment and focus on only what really matters; I like that.

We pack up. While Sam is craving things like a good shower and a lounge on the couch, I feel as though I could spend another 15 days out here in the backcountry. I feel safe, at home, and at peace. With some sadness, I pack the list item into my bag and begin to load the canoe.

I'm relishing every paddle stroke into the beautiful waters of Obabika Lake. Its pristine beauty is captivating. I've always found from previous experience that it takes until around the four or five day mark of a trip to fully settle in and release your mind from whatever is bothering you back home. I'm in that place, fully connected with my surroundings. I'm not quite ready to leave, but I'm grateful for every moment that I have left.

We reach the Southern end of Obabika Lake and notice a portage sign West of the lodge. We try it. If it was a portage at one time, it wasn't anymore. The forest has taken it back and turned it into a pile of unnavigable deadfall. Still, we try.

Through the a ton of sweat, plenty of curse words, and possibly even some newly invented ones, we finally make it to the familiar path South of the lodge; it's the portage to Pond Lake from day one.

We take it, and the horse flies are BAD. Swarming, buzzing, driving us insane. If there is such a thing as hell on Earth, it might be this. We trudge through the wet ground with fallen logs and snags while the bugs do their worst. My hands are preoccupied with the canoe, so I just take every bite as they come. I'm fairly good in situations like this, somehow I just find a way to enjoy the suffering, stay positive, and push through. Poor Sam, this is not what she wanted on the last day after such a wonderful trip.

Coming out of the final stretch of the portage, we may as well have been one big horse-fly bite each. We quickly launch the canoe, paddle Pond lake, collect our gear, and make it to the car.

Our trip has come to an end.

The car ride home from a trip is always one of my favourite experiences. It's when you get a second to decompress and reflect on what you just went through. Firstly, I was grateful to share such an incredible trip with Sam, her being there with me is what made it truly special. I was grateful for the beauty of the Temagami backcountry, of true wilderness, of the dancing pines and singing birds. I was grateful to have met Alex, to have shared stories with him, and was already looking forward to the next time I could see my new friend.

I smiled and put the car into park.


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