ZEC Kipawa L'Échelle Loop

CanadaQuebec04 Ottawa
Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Dirk Dixon
Trip Date : 
Additional Route Information
98 km
8 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
1800 m
Longest Portage: 
800 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Not applicable
Lake Travel: 
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Access to Put-In Information: 

From Kipawa, QC, take Chemin Maniwaki about 32km to Le Camp-Quatre.

Technical Guide: 

This is a loop route in ZEC Kipawa that is listed in their website (http://www.zeckipawa.com/canoe.html). The portion between Lac Pommeroy and Lac McKillop is very scenic and relatively remote. Plenty of wildlife.

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

Failed attempt at L’Échelle Loop, Canada 2011
92 km, 18 lakes and 8 portages in 8 days. That was the plan, but plans change. Our objective was to paddle the L’Échelle Loop in Quebec’s ZEC Kipawa. A ZEC (in French “Zone d'Exploitation Contrôlée”) is a “Controlled Harvesting Zone”. We Pennsylvanians could understand them to be basically Quebec’s version of our Pennsylvania Game Lands, but with a lot more water. Some do have established canoe routes, but in order of unofficial priority they tend to cater to logging, hunting, fishing and then canoe camping (almost no trail maintainence). The L’Échelle Loop looked very interesting on their website. The bulk of it is remote and involves passage on narrow lakes. We had paddled the southwest portion of it on a previous trip and found it very nice. My main concern before starting the trip was lack of information about the route, especially campsite locations. The park’s website showed too few for my concern and gave no details of their conditions. I turned to the internet forums and posted inquiries. Although I did get several responses, all said the last time they traveled that loop was 15-20 years ago. A couple of responders gave me good advice on several unlisted campsite locations and conditions. I was told most sites were small and could only hold two tents at best. However, all the responders agreed the loop was worth travelling. It promised beautiful scenery and plenty of wildlife.
Karl Martz, Mary Klaue, Larry Beyer and I set out from Mary’s Central PA home at 5:00AM Thursday morning (18 Aug). After a long, but pleasant, drive we arrived in Temiscaming, Quebec at 6:00PM. We checked in to the Arberge Canadienne Motel, had dinner in their restaurant and took a short hike up the lookout trail overlooking the town.
A 32 km early morning ride on the well maintained Chemin Maniwaki logging road put us at the Grindstone Lake put-in at 9:30AM. At that point we had to make a decision. Do we travel the route clockwise or counter-clockwise? Previous experience and a lengthy review of the internet’s average wind patterns for the area made us decide on counter-clockwise. That decision would very well prove to be the right one for us later. The public put-in at Le Camp-Quatre is at the southeast section of the loop, so we set out north on the eastern portion. Before starting we spoke with Marie LaBranche at nearby Depot Mongo. She and many of her family spend their summers at cabins facing a beautiful bay. We had met other members of the family on a past trip. They gave us lots of advice on the lower portion of the route and were proud to show us their new houseboats they had started to rent last year. If you want to see the beautiful Kipawa lakes region in a less strenuous manner you should seriously consider their houseboat option (www.kipawahouseboat.com). They are essentially upscale RV’s on the water.
An easy 3 km paddle took us to the first portage, but along the way we flushed a bald eagle out of a tree at near water level and only 10 yards away. This was the first of many wildlife sightings. The 40 meter portage was an easy carry that put us on Lac Desquerac and we passed a good looking campsite on a point on the left as we proceeded to Lac McLachlin. Chute-Du-Pin-Rouge was supposed to be a portage around a bridge, but it appears the bridge had been rebuilt and the channel opened for easy passage. Narrow passages on Rivierre and Ruisseau Birch, one more short portage and 18km of paddling put us on Lac McKillop in search of a campsite. There were several beaches that could hold tents (on a slant), but the ZEC map showed one on a large island in the middle of the lake. Twenty minutes of searching found it to actually be on a narrow peninsula just east of the island. It was small and showed very few signs of use. We made dinner at the campsite, but set up our tents on its beach. After doing so, we discovered a much better level beach site at the north end of the peninsula.
Saturday morning’s paddle up the north end of Lac McKillop started with extremely calm water. Shortly after pushing off we spotted something swimming across the lake several hundred meters ahead of us. At first we thought it was probably a beaver, but it appeared to be too long. We discounted the possibility it was an otter, because they simply don’t swim in a straight line for very long as this was doing. At some point it turned its head to look at us and we saw the distinct profile of a large cat. It doubled its speed upon seeing us and the race was on. We managed to get to it when it was about 30 meters from shore and only had time to take a couple of close up photos before and as it left the lake. What we originally thought was a bobcat turned out to be a once in a lifetime up close sighting of a Canadian Lynx. What a thrill!
Nine kilometers of paddling up more narrow passages and the length of Lac Pants brought us to a 360 meter easy carry to a higher narrow boggy lake. The reward for this portage was lunch and the observation of a picturesque waterfall. Another easy 100 meter portage put us on Lac A L’Échelle. Lac A L’Échelle sits at the high ground of this route and suffers the consequences of not having much water feeding it. Without enough runoff out of the lake it has inadequate circulation and is heavily affected by acid rain. It is a “Windex” lake with very clear lightly tinted blue-green water and nothing much living in it. However, its two long bays are stunningly beautiful and surrounded by many majestic old growth red and white pine.
Our intent was to go north out of the west side of the lake on through series of large ponds and a small stream that was supposed to connect us with Lac A La Truite. But that is where our original plan fell apart. First of all it was readily apparent that being on the high ground in late summer had run us out of water, but more importantly the large pond we needed in order to proceed no longer existed. For many years it stood behind the ramparts of an enormous beaver dam that rose nearly 2 meters high and about 80 meters long. Unfortunately one end of the dam was built on a long sloping rock. Eventually the pond pressure became too great for the unsecured dam on the smooth rock. It appears the dam blew out not long ago in what must of have been a cataclysmic event. The rock was washed clean and there were two large pot holes directly below the break opening. An enormous beaver lodge now stands high and dry in the middle of a mucky marsh that extended as far as we could see. We opted to turn around, find a campsite on Lac A L’Échelle and contemplate our options. Although there are no campsites marked on the ZEC map, we found a nice one on a high point between the two bays. We later found one behind a beach on the north east bay. The beach site definitely had not been used in the past year or two. The point site was in good shape, but also had not been used in quite a while either.
We decided to spend two nights at that site, relax and explore the lake. Then we would take our time getting back to the car and make a run down to Algonquin Provincial Park. Larry had never been there and we knew he would enjoy a day or two on the Route 60 corridor exploring the campgrounds and museums. Saturday night was spent marveling at the night sky, the brilliant Milky Way, spotting satellites and counting shooting stars (including one exceptionally brilliant one that lasted about 3 seconds). Sunday was another dark blue sky day with puffy white clouds. We spent the day exploring the lake. We spotted a curious mink that spent quite a while checking us out from the base of a tree. We looked in vain for moose, but we knew we were in the right place based upon the numerous hoof prints we saw in the sand. The highlight of the day was seeing a wolf trotting along a distant shore. It was too far away to get a photo of it, but the image is forever imprinted in our minds.
Monday was spent leisurely making our way back the way we came. As the day went on we started to realize turning back was not such a bad idea. The wind was now blowing rather briskly out of the northwest and would have been directly in our faces if we had been able to continue our intended route, but now it was at our backs. Another thought occurred to us. Had we decided on a clockwise approach to this route, we would have run into the high ground blockage more than halfway through the trip and the wind would have been against us for almost the entire trip (especially on the larger lakes in the southwest portion of the route on our way back). We were happy with our situation. There was supposed to be a campsite on the west side of the bottom of Lac Pants, but we had not seen one on the way up. We concluded they must have meant the parking area at the end of a logging road was the intended location. It was a nice flat area and no one was at the cabin across the stream from it, so we set up camp and took a hike up the old logging road. It rained while we were eating dinner, but we were rewarded with one of the most brilliant double rainbows we had ever seen.
Tuesday started out a bit cloudy and the wind was stronger. As we broke out onto Lac McKillop we pulled out a mini tarp. We tied it to two paddles, pulled the boats together and set sail down the lake at speeds that sometimes gave us some concern. We sailed the length of the lake, passed our earlier campsite and continued on to cover 22km, a portage, one snack break and a long lunch in less than 6 hours, despite it raining part of the way.
We took advantage of the campsite we saw earlier on Lac Desquerac. It was one of the nicest sites we’ve ever used. It’s on an airy point with room for four tents, plenty of trees with space between them for tarps and a great swimming hole with multiple ledges to climb out and sit on. Unfortunately we did not get a chance to swim. A strong cool wind and rain persisted almost all day Wednesday. We spent the day relaxing under the tarp, reading, writing, telling stories and cooking up enjoyable meals.
Although we did not get to do the entire route we wanted, the portion we did more than lived up to its reputation. The scenery was spectacular and the fact we did not see anyone for several days testified to how little the area is used and why there was some much wildlife to see.
We left the Kipawa area behind us on Thursday morning and made our way down to Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. We entered the west gate of the park on Route 60 near Dwight, ON and found a nice campsite next to the lake at the Canisbay Campground. Once we were set up and had nice hot showers we learned there was a wolf howl originally scheduled for that evening, but it was cancelled due to weather conditions (too windy). The park staff conducts these events several times each summer. They are incredibly well organized and often attended by several thousand people who somehow manage to stay quite enough while standing in the dark along a closed down Route 60 for the chance to hear wolves howling back from the distance to park staff that initiate the calls. We regretted missing the opportunity, but the staff still put on a great program at their outdoor theatre. We packed a lot of activities into Friday. Algonquin has a summer staff of excellent naturalist who conduct programs all over the park. We participated in a walk through the woods while being informed of many interesting facts about mushrooms and fungi. Later we took a guided tour of the outdoor logging museum. We also walked the Spruce Bog Trail and visited the park’s main museum and its art center. Both of which are well worth the trip to see. If you’ve never been to Algonquin Park, put it on your list of places to spend a week. There is plenty to do while car camping along the Route 60 corridor and the massive area north of there has many canoe routes that beckon to be explored.
If you are into outdoor adventure (especially canoe camping or backpacking) and are interested in the latest equipment available, then the outfitters at the west end of the park and along the way south (near Gravenhurst, ON) are good entertainment and a great temptation. We spent Saturday checking out all they had to offer as we made our way down past Toronto and to a friendly motel just outside of Niagara Falls. We learned the hard way in the past that it is much better to cross back into the U.S. through customs early in the morning. At 7:30AM you can drive right up to the customs booth. Any time later in the day and you risk the likelihood of having to wait several hours in bumper to bumper traffic. It’s only a 5-6 hour ride from the Canadian border at Niagara to Central PA and we got home in plenty of time to unpack and even mow the lawn.
I got an email from someone who did the entire loop later than us in August. He said the beaver dam was there back in 2009 and had a horrible time mucking his way through chest deep mud between Lac Devon and Lac L’ Échelle this year.
I’ve put a set of photos together in the Flickr website. http://www.flickr.com/photos/92931344@N00/sets/72157627724537345/

Special Comments: 

The portion Lac a la Truite and Lac L'Échelle is very boggy now that a very large beaver dam no longer holds back more than a kilometer of water.