Shoals Provincial Park North and South Loops

CanadaOntarioLake Superior basin
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Thu, Oct 25, 2012
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50 km
2 days
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Shoals Provincial Park North and South Canoe Routes:
North Route: 2 days / 40 km / 8 portages
South Route: 1 day / 16 km / 7 portages
Both together as a loop: 2-3 days / 50 km / 13 portages

The north canoe route through beautiful countryside introduces inexperienced canoe campers to the Northern Ontario bush. The eight short portages for the north route are not well marked and there are no designated campsites on the route, but with a “Nicholson” NTS topographical map (41-0/13, 50,000:1), the route is easy to follow. I actually took my Nicholson topo map, scanned the appropriate section into my computer, enlarged it just enough to fit an 8 ½" x 11" sheet of paper and printed it out in color. Then I laminated the printed sheets to give me small waterproof maps to use on the route. I even made a separate enlarged (something on the order of 20,000:1) map of the “portages 2 to 6” section which really helped in identifying the preferred route. Canoeists should be aware of rough water on Windermere Lake in windy conditions and low water during the summer months on the Grazing River north of Highway 101. Fishing on Windermere Lake is reported to be excellent for northern pike, walleye, small mouth bass and perch.

History of a “Ghost Town” — Nicholson
Prior to 1885, the Chapleau area was inhabited only by native people and trappers who follow the water highways in their search for fur. With the coming of the railroad came a new industry — logging.

Nicholson was established in 1901 as a sawmill town. By 1916, the Austin and Nicholson Lumber Company had become the largest rail tie producing company in the world. This isolated town thrived on the profits from the mills until 1956 when all business operations ceased. The timber was used up.

Today a few houses in Nicholson from the 1940's and 1950's serve as summer cottages, but are rarely occupied. The train will still stop, if needed, at the station in town to load or unload passengers or freight. In the bush, evidence of a once active industry is apparent in the form of abandoned logging roads, bridges, and log booms. In Nicholson, most of the old historic buildings have fallen down. The old church steeple is now fallen, but still observable in the pile of rubble. There is a large grassy field at Nicholson which could be used for a camp site at the midway point of this route. There is an excellent sandy beach for swimming all around the Nicholson peninsula.

Access and Route Description
The canoe route was originally a loop beginning and ending on Little Wawa Lake, but low water levels and several beaver dams have made Little Wawa Creek (from Little Wawa Lake to Lower Prairie Bee Lake) almost impassable. There are actually two loops in the route: the north loop (40 km, 8 portages, 2 days) and the south loop (16 km, 7 portages, 1 day). The south loop begins and ends at the sandy beach of Shoals Provincial Park campground on Little Wawa Lake. Little Wawa is a crystal clear lake, excellent for swimming. Technically the “north loop” is no longer a loop route. The loop can be completed by asking one of the staff at Shoals Provincial Park to drive you and your vehicle to the put-it spot, drop you off, and return your vehicle to one of the camp sites in the park awaiting your return. They’ll charge a few dollars extra for the campsite permit and the interior permit, but it is worth it to not have to hike the six kilometers back to your vehicle at the put-in.


July 26, 2005, 8:15 AM our group of five guys set out in two canoes to follow the north loop. We began our trip on Prairie Bee Lake just north of Highway 101 at the MNR Prairie Bee Lake access. The access road is about 5 kilometers west of the Shoals Provincial Park entrance. We had two vehicles, so we spotted one vehicle at the put-in and left the other vehicle at our Shoals Provincial Park base camp. We paddled down the right shore of Prairie Bee Lake, through Dividing Narrows, and north into Lower Prairie Bee Lake,. We paddled the length of the lake and then followed the Prairie Bee River to the old concrete dam. There is a fishing resort on the north end of Lower Prairie Bee Lake, and we saw a couple of boats along the route. We paddled a total of about sixteen kilometers to the dam. We took portage 1 — an easy carry — on the left side of the dam into Windermere Lake. (The dam raised the Lower Prairie Bee Lake level about two meters). We stopped at this sandy spot for a lunch of PBJ sandwiches, cookies and fresh fruit. We found a few dozen 15 to 20 centimeter walleye swimming in the shallow water below the dam, giving an indication of further great fishing in Windermere Lake.

July 26, 2005, 1:30 PM After the portage we paddled another nine kilometers east on Windermere Lake, past three isolated island cottages, keeping close to shore because of wind conditions. Paddling along this route I noticed that my wooden canoe paddle was starting to split along the middle of the blade. It was not a good thought to be our there without two paddles in each canoe. We pulled along shore and got out a roll of black electrical tape I had in my pack. I wrapped the blade with about four layers of tape, and it held together for the rest of the trip.

We arrived at Nicholson about 4:30 PM. We took about an hour to explore this old ghost town. We should have stayed at Nicholson for an overnight, because there is such a great grassy area to set up camp. Instead we continue up Grazing Inlet to the Grazing River and found a suitable camp site about two kilometers up the river. On this leg we were confronted with strong headwind, completely halting our forward progress at times despite our hard paddling. Twenty-seven kilometers and only that single portage was enough for us that day.

We set up camp about 7:00 PM and prepared dinner. There was a “no open fires” ban in the area because of lack of rain. We had brought our small propane burner with us, so a hot dinner of boiled hot dogs, baked beans and camp-made biscuits tasted pretty good. After dinner I went in swimming across the fifty meters of narrow river in front of our camp. The water was seldom more than a meter-and-a-half deep. Returning to camp I realized I had attracted a small leach on my left ankle. I just pulled the critter off rather than doing the salt thing, but he left a scar that later became infected and took about three months to fully heal.

July 27, 2005, 7:00 AM After a day of paddling we slept soundly that night, even though we heard the distant sound of a Canadian Northern train passing through Nicholson about every ninety minutes. Maybe we were glad we hadn’t camped at Nicholson that night — we would have been two kilometers closer to the train sound. We fixed a hot breakfast of pancakes and syrup. Just as we broke camp about 8:30 AM a gentle mist began to fall, so we got out our rain gear and paddled on up the Grazing River.

In about seven kilometers, w e came to the waterfall. By this time the light mist had stopped and the sun was beginning to shine through. The temperature was about 70 degrees F. I don’t know what that is in Celsius (21 degrees?). The waterfall is a big enough falls that we could hear it about two kilometers out. We had talked to a local fisherman in his boat the day before who told us that below the waterfall was an excellent place to jig for walleye in the evening. At the waterfall, there is a steep portage (portage 2). The entrance is on the slippery rocks on the left. It’s only a 25 meter distance, but due to the steep rise of the rocks, we had to unload our canoes and reload at the top. About a hundred meters further across a small pond there is a little falls (portage 3) that can be lifted over on the right side. The next pond is about two hundred meters across, followed by a ninety meter portage 4 that got us back on the river, heading upstream for half a kilometer.

Portage 5 is about 225 kilometers long. This is the first portage we regretted bringing so much gear along. We had to double portage some to get all our stuff through. I might add here that there were no portage markings anywhere along the trip, but with the help of the Nicholson Map the route was easy to find. We actually figured that even in late July, we were the first people to take this route for the year because there were numerous places along portage 5 where we had to stop and remove a dead-fall from the previous winter that blocked our trail.

Back on the water we followed the river for a kilometer-and-a-half to portage 6. This was another 225 kilometer portage up and over a rocky hill that also required some partial double portaging. This portage was a well used game trail and easy to follow. It ended at a grassy pond. By this time we were all ready for some lunch. Since this was only a one-overnight trip, I had packed our food in a small plastic cooler. Lunch was planned to be salami sandwiches with lettuce, cheese and mayo and fresh apples. I found everything we needed for lunch in the cooler EXCEPT the bread! I forgot to put in the loaf of bread, finally remembering that I left it in the window of my van. Oh, well! The lettuce, mayo and cheese made a useful collection to contain the salami. Lunch wasn’t great, but we were all hungry and it sure tasted good!

July 27, 2005, 2:00 PM After lunch we launched the canoes into the grassy lake, heading to the right and back on the Grazing River. The river was very wide at this point , but unfortunately very shallow. Water level was naturally low for this time of the summer, added to the fact that the area was experiencing a bit of a drought. This was also a very open area with few trees. The sun was shining between puffy white clouds as we made our way, a gentle breeze was blowing, and there were surprisingly few mosquitoes and other bugs to bother us. The river bottom was silt and mud, so there was no hope of stepping out unless we wanted to sink waist-deep into the muck. I did that once a couple of years earlier on another river — it was a real mess! Also we had three people in one canoe and most of our gear in the other, so both canoes were riding heavy.

We had to pole our way through the reeds and muck for a kilometer before the river narrowed and deepened. After that progress was easy. We paddled another kilometer to the Highway 101 bridge over the Grazing River. There is a two meter diameter steel culvert for the river to pass through. Even though the water was low, there was a good current flow through the culvert. We tried to paddle it, but the current was too strong. We lifted the canoes around the culvert on the left side. After standing there for a brief rest, we launched into Grazing River again. At this point the river is about one hundred meters wide and plenty deep. The Highway 101 bridge seems to serve as somewhat of a dam for the river.

Immediately on the right side, about180 meters from the highway, portage 7 was easily identified by a yellow and white portage marker. This is the place where the north canoe route joins the south canoe route. The south route is a sixteen kilometer day trip that I’ll talk about a little later. This easy well-traveled portage is 160 meters long and launches into what is called “Lake D.” Even though we had to double portage some of our stuff, we knew we were nearing the end of our journey, and we carried our gear with a certain eagerness. We paddled the 300 meters across this little lake to portage 8 on the other side — a 180 meters long portage that ends at the shore of Little Wawa Lake. We picked some ripe blue berries along the portage that tasted very good. Berry season runs roughly from the middle of July to the end of August. Some years we’ve kept blue berries to add to our pancake mix the next morning. M-m-m good!

July 27, 2005, 5:00 PM Unlike most of the other lakes in the area, Little Wawa Lake is a crystal clear lake — not stained. The end of portage 8 is at the sandy shore. We loaded the gear back into our canoes for the last time and set out across Little Wawa Lake, paddling the two kilometers back to our base camp near the beach. While the others in the group put away equipment, two of us took the other vehicle to the put-in on Prairie Bee Lake to recover my van — with the loaf of now dried bread still in the window.

We spent a total of six nights at Shoals Provincial Park, including the two canoe loops. We also explored several portage-in lakes. We could easily have extended this north loop trip to a two-overnighter, taking time for fishing along the way. I would especially liked to have camped near the waterfall and tried some late evening walleye fishing. Since it was our first time on this route, we left our fishing gear back at our base camp. We still caught plenty of fish the rest of the week on the smaller portage-in lakes around Little Wawa, or on Little Wawa Lake itself, even though it was the end of July. Back in July, 2003, one of the guys in our group caught an eight-pound-thirteen-ounce walleye in Little Wawa Lake. This year two of us each caught twelve pound northerns on one of the portage-in lakes, plus a lot of smaller pike in the two to five pound range. One guy in our group caught a three pound walleye that ended up as dinner that night!

Description of the 8 Portages for the North Canoe Loop

P-1 (50 meters) Portage around the left (north) side of the old Austin Lumber (Dalton) Limited water control dam.

P-2 (25 meters) Falls. Put in at a steep landing on the left, below the falls. Above the falls be careful when launching into the current to avoid being swept over the falls. Stay close to the east (left) shore of the river.

P-3 (lift-over) Carry over this small falls on the west (right). Be careful on the slippery rocks, Continue upriver, keeping to the west (right) of the rapids.
P-4 (90 meters) Rapids. Beware of slippery rocks on this portage. Proceed upriver, keeping to the west (right) shore.

P-5 (225 meters) Rapids. Portage trail ends in current at the head of a rapids. Novices use the 30 meter trail extension and launch further above the rapids to avoid being swept down-river.

P-6 (225 meters) Rapids. Land on the east (left) bank. The trail runs into a bay off the river. Launch in a marshy area, follow the west (right) shore, then turn left.

P-7 (160 meters) The portage is after you cross under Highway 101. The portage is marked by a portage sign on the jack-pine on the west (right) bank of the river, 180 meters from Highway 101. Portage into an unnamed lake.

P-8 (180 metes) Portage from the other end of this unnamed lake. The launching site is on the northeast shore of Little Wawa Lake. Proceed to the park campground and you have completed The Shoals North Loop Canoe Route.


July 29, 2005 8:15 AM I’ve made the south canoe loop several times. I like to take it in the direction through Banana Lake then Balfour Lake, primarily because the exit stream out of Balfour Lake has a pretty good flow to it, even in times of low water and is difficult to paddle upstream. We left base came relatively early this morning for the sixteen kilometer, one day, seven portage south canoe loop. A solo female canoeist was just ahead of us on the route. One of our guys had to go home early in the week, so this trip was balanced out at two per canoe. We also had very little gear to carry since this was only a day trip. That made all of the portages single, which greatly simplified the trip. As we departed base camp, a slight fog was over the water, a few clouds were in the sky and the morning sun was starting to warm the air. We paddled two kilometers across Little Wawa Lake in a south-westerly direction. Crossing Little Wawa, we observed a bald eagle tending his nest on a high tree top near the portage entrance. The solo paddler was ahead of us and had cleared the portage 1 entrance by the time we got there.
Portage 1 was an easy 225 meter hike through the woods. The first twenty meters are a bog, but the trail soon opens up to solid footing. Two guys each shouldered a canoe while the other two carried all of our fishing gear and food. We got to the end of the portage on Banana Lake about 10:00 AM. We launched into the lake with our fishing gear ready. We have often fished Banana Lake, always with the same results: lots of northern pike!

Within the first hour we each had caught and released five or six northern and were ready to move on. The portage 2 exit is on the left side of the last bay of the lake and slightly up a stream. The portage soon brought us to the next lake — known as “Lake A”. I’ve observed something in Canada. If the topo maps give a lake a name, that usually indicates there is some good fishing on that lake. If the topo map doesn’t have a name for the lake, usually no one has ever bothered to name that lake because it holds few if any fish. Lakes “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D” on this loop have few fish. Banana, Balfour and Little Pine Lakes on this loop have names, and have great fishing. Its about a kilometer of paddling down Lake “A” to the south tip. The portage 3 exit out of this lake was easy to find. The Shoals Provisional Park staff maintains this south loop on an annual basis. That means that the portages are clear and the yellow and white portage marker signs are usually in place.

Portage 3 of 205 meters leads through the woods and across an old logging trail to a little pot-hole of a pond, about as hundred meters in diameter. We knew to be careful in our launch, because if we accidentally stepped into the water, the muck bottom would swallow us up to our waists (we know because it happened to us before — what a mess!) This little pot-hole pond has a water passage into a bigger lake called Lake “B”. The next portage 4 is about a third of the way down the left side of this little lake. We’ve caught a few northerns in this lake in past years, but we decided to forego fishing since we knew conditions would be so much better in Balfour Lake, still ahead of us. It always has been a little hard to find this portage out of Lake “B” since the trees grow over the shoreline in this area.

Finding portage 4 we followed it for 225 meters to a wide stream that meanders one and a half kilometers to what is called Lake “C”. We’ve fished Lake “C” in past years and never caught a thing. We’ve also talked to fishermen the year before who were dragging a small motor boat our direction upstream out of Balfour Lake, claiming that this Lake “C” was great for walleye. Go figure! The exit out of Lake “C” is a lift-over, over a beaver dam that is around a point on the left side about the middle of the lake. Past the beaver dam, it is about three hundred meters down a shallow, narrow, meander stream that empties into Balfour Lake.

The first third of Balfour Lake is shallow and silted in pretty well. Good fishing starts at the first large island and continues down the lake until the lake narrows into its northern basin. Balfour is a deep lake and has a good population of Northern and walleye. One of our guys caught a three pound walleye that we kept for dinner that night. It was a chore dragging that fish along through the rest of the portages, but worth the effort. There are two pretty good camp site locations on the right side of the lake at the two points that protrude into the lake, with some good fishing from the shore. We found a lot of ripe blueberries on one of these points as we stopped about 1:00 PM for lunch and relaxation. On Balfour Lake we caught up with the solo female paddler we had seen earlier. She was reclining on the sunny left shore taking a rest. We observed one other canoe on Balfour Lake that day. In previous trips we usually didn’t see anyone for the whole route. Perhaps Shoals Provisional Park is doing more promoting of this fine route, so it is getting more use.

July 29, 2005, 2:00 PM We departed our rest spot and continued on to the north end of Balfour Lake. This area was an old logging route where timber was harvested around Balfour Lake and floated down the lake and down the Grazing River to the saw mill at Nicholson. There are still a series of floating logs and a log jam that block the exit out of Balfour Lake, leading to what is my favorite part of the trip. We needed to lift our canoes over this blockage and into the fast flowing water. From here the Grazing River continues on a very meandering route for two kilometers. The river is never more than three or four meters wide and a meter deep with many double-backs. It is never wide enough to turn a canoe around. There are no big trees in this marshy area along the river. Tall grass and bushes line the shore. I just love the challenge, switching back and forth, sometimes running into the brush because we failed to negotiate a sharp turn. It is easy to get moving too fast and miss the portage out. Portage 5 is located on the right side. It is up a hill for eight meters, then down an open incline eighty meters to Little Pine Lake. This whole portage area looks like it had a fire maybe ten or more years ago. The trees are mostly all broken down. Blueberry picking in this area is excellent in season. We easily gathered a water bottle full of berries that we saved for breakfast and blueberry pancakes the next morning.

At the end of portage 5 we launched into Little Pine Lake and followed it about a kilometer downstream to portage 6 on the left side. We did a little fishing as we paddled the length of the lake and caught a few northerns that we released. This portage was well marked with a sign. It is about 180 meters before the Highway 101 bridge. Portage 6 was a very straight, open route up and over a hill and down to the shore of Lake “D”. In past years I have caught some nice perch out of Lake “D”, but never anything else. We didn’t bother to fish it this time, but crossed the 300 meters to the last portage of the loop about 4:30 PM.

Out of Lake “D”, portage 7 is a 180 meter easy hike. It is fairly open, and the portage ends on a sandy beach on Little Wawa Lake. After seeing brown-stained water most of the day, it was great to see again the crystal clear waters of Little Wawa Lake. As we neared the end of the portage we caught up with the solo female canoeist we had seen on the route. She was cooling off in the cool waters of the lake. She loaded up and headed back to the campground as we paused at the end of the portage to rest a bit before launching our canoes for the final leg back to base camp.

We took the final two kilometers across Little Wawa Lake in a little more than a half-hour. The wind was strong and in our faces, which slowed our progress some. We rounded the point near the park’s public beach and landed on the sandy shore by our camp site about 5:30 PM. We had traveled the sixteen kilometers and seven portages in a little over nine hours, allowing for about two hours of fishing and lunch along the way.

Don Nord

The Shoals Provincial Park South Canoe Loop: 1 day / 16 km / 7 portages

Try this long paddle through the interior of The Shoals Provincial Park. This route makes a loop, beginning and ending at the park campground on Little Wawa Lake. In low water, this route may be too shallow for canoe travel. Check with the park office before setting out. Although portages are well marked, the following description is included for the novice.
Commentary: As of summer, 2005, the portages are all in excellent shape. They are well marked and mostly clear of fallen timber, but expect a few “push-overs.” While this route is listed for “the beginner”, it requires a certain “mental toughness” to get through — especially in navigating the stream into and the exit and stream out of Balfour Lake.

P-1 (225 m) Paddle across Little Wawa Lake to this first portage. The often boggy trail leads to a muddy landing on Banana Lake. Paddle south on Banana Lake to a small stream.
Commentary: The only boggy part of this portage is the first 30 meters. There are a few fallen trees you’ll have to step over. There is a great landing and launch at the end of the portage into Banana Lake. If you’re into northern pike fishing, give this clear water lake a try. Fish the north half of the lake (the first half) as the south half is too shallow for much action. Troll or cast the central basin and about 15 to 20 meters off the east shore for some great pike action.

P-2 (225 m) The portage begins on the left a little way up the stream and leads to an unnamed lake “A”. Cross a shallow narrows to the main body of the lake, and find the next portage at its southern tip.
Commentary: The portage starts about 100 m up the stream on the left. While this lake “A” is about the size of Banana, don’t bother trying to fish it — it’s too shallow. There are much better opportunities ahead on Balfour Lake.

P-3 (205 m) After portaging, paddle through a narrows overhung with cedar, and across the main body of this lake “A”, to the portage on its eastern tip.
Commentary: The first small basin is very silted-in. Don’t try to step down into the water — you’ll go down a meter into muck! In the bigger basin of the lake there are several submerged sand bars. There is some good walleye fishing around the first large island. The middle basin is somewhat deeper and sustains a moderate northern pike population, some up to 10 kg.

P-4 (225 m) Portage around an intermittent stream into unnamed lake “C”. Paddle east through a winding narrows then south to a large point on the east shore. Paddle around the point, over a beaver dam and down a stream into Belfour Lake.
Commentary: Lake “C” has potential for northern and walleye fishing, especially in the southwest corner of the lake. The exit over the beaver dam is down a narrow, winding stream about 300 meters before you get to Balfour Lake. The stream bottom is mucky, so stay in your canoe! You may have to occasionally get out on the grassy bogs to push over fallen timber. The first third of Belfour Lake is silted in and generally too shallow for good fishing. The best fishing on the trip starts once you get to the middle third of the lake with the steep granite faces on the left. Troll along the rocks, 10 to 20 meters off shore. Also try the south shore and near the camp site. Be ready for some great “line-breaking” action! The east shore of the large basin also holds a few northerns.

Cross Balfour Lake to a stream and follow it over a beaver dam to a collapsed logging bridge.
Commentary: This makes it sound easy. This exit out of Balfour Lake is quite a challenge! There are many timbers to pull the canoe over at the end of Balfour Lake, before you get to the beaver dam. Beyond the dam the stream has a good flow to it, but is very winding for two kilometers and a great technical canoeing challenge. You also may have some new beaver dam pull-overs. Be ready to get your feet wet. Don’t miss the portage exit on the right bank — the only one you’ll see. If you make it to the collapsed bridge, you’ve gone too far. The stream is impassable there. Backtrack 100 m. to the portage.

P-5 (90 m) Portage around the right of the bridge to a beach on Little Pine Lake. Cross the lake and enter the Grazing River. Paddle downstream.
Commentary: This is an easy portage, after the challenging stream. In late July and August, there is some great blueberry picking along this portage. Little Pine Lake is another great lake for northerns, although not as good as Balfour or Banana. Troll shorelines about 20 to 30 meters out in 3 to 5 meters of water.

P-6 (150 m) This steep portage begins on the left bank of the Grazing River just before Highway 101. Paddle across this unnamed lake “D”.
Commentary: This unnamed lake “D” has only a perch population — fun for a change of pace, if you want it. The start of the portage is the only steep part — about the first 30 meters. Most of the rest is a comfortable, dry, downhill walk.

P-7 (180 m) Just visible across lake “D” from portage 6, this trail leads to Little Wawa Lake. Proceed to the campground to complete The Shoals South Loop Canoe Route.
Commentary: This is an easy exit out of lake “D”. The portage is well traveled, therefore it’s quite open. It’s nice to get back to the crystal clear waters of Little Wawa Lake, and back to base camp.

DDN revised August, 2005