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Temagami: "Rescued" by an OPP search party (late September 2001 - no photos)

This is a story of a (potential) survival situation in the wilds of Temagami. There are lessons to be learned here - for everyone, not just me.

For those of you who know the area, or have a map of Temagami, this paragraph outlines my route. I chose a popular canoe route beginning at the Central Lake Temagami Access Road, paddling north to the Sharp Rock Inlet, portage to Diamond Lake, head west to the two portages into Wakimika Lake, south to Wakimika River into Obabika Lake, continuing south to the portage into Obabika Inlet of Lake Temagami, down the Northwest Arm and back to the Central Lake Temagami Access Road (I intended to do a short side trip down Obabika River and up Nasmith Creek to Lahay Lake and portage back to Obabika River and Obabika Lake. But I was advised that Nasmith Creek would be too low. Also, by the time I got to Obabika Lake I did not have time).

I planned for 6 days, having one of the days as wind bound insurance. Tuesday night I camped on Temagami Island (after having a late start); Wednesday night at Sharp Rock Inlet; Thursday night again at Sharp Rock Inlet because of heavy rain; the north end of Wakimika Lake on Friday night (I avoided camping on Diamond because of the reported aggressive bear problems); Saturday night on Obabika; and I intended to paddle out on Sunday. That is when things got hairy. But I don't want to get ahead of myself so I'll start off from the beginning.

Before setting out I went to the local Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) detachment in Temagami (not always staffed full-time) and filled out an 'Itinerary Report' outlining my route, "just in case". This was a last-minute decision on my part. Usually, in a provincial park, this would be done when registering at the gate with the park ranger.  There are a number of reasons I decided to register with the OPP:  there was no park gate; parts of my route were not in a park; I had never paddled here before; and I was soloing in a more wild place than usual.  I felt that this was the correct coarse of action - and as it turned out it was. I was told by my OPP 'rescuers' that people rarely do this and in rescue situations it makes their job almost impossible because of the size of Lake Temagami. I also told my family where I was going and gave them the phone number of the Temagami OPP to call if I was not home by Monday night (in effect giving myself additional wind bound insurance as I expected to be out on Sunday).

So I paddled out to Temagami Island on Tuesday and up Lake Temagami on Wednesday. I wasn't much impressed with Lake Temagami itself. Too big and too many motorboats and cottages. I think it will soon be like Muskoka 'cottage country'. The weather was OK with no major wind to deal with for such a big lake (that would come later). Next time I will try the Red Squirrel Road to reduce the distance to Sharp Rock Inlet. Once in Sharp Rock Inlet the motorboats were no longer seen - just heard droaning in the distance. It started to rain shortly after arriving at my campsite in the narrows to Sharp Rock Inlet. The next day, Thursday, it continued to rain heavily. My old GoreTex jacket no longer beads water so instead of getting soaked I decided to stay put and read for the day. This was my first mistake: using up my wind bound day very early in the trip when I didn't really need to.

Diamond Lake was uneventful. It rained on and off all day. I saw my first and only other canoe trippers here. It was a single canoe heading back to Lake Temagami. I stopped on a peninsula for lunch while constantly watching over my shoulder for the purported "nuisance bear of Diamond Lake". The southwestern end of Diamond Lake has an interesting steep rocky shoreline. There is one section where the land has sheared apart and a large crack runs deep through the bedrock. Another area where cannon ball sized stones formed a huge island right in the centre of the lake. It looked artificial and from a distance looked like a stone wall. Very strange indeed! It was an esker.

The first portage to Wakimika Lake was quite rough but leads to a beautiful tiny little lake. The next portage, just on the other side of the little lake, was easy going, being mostly on an old logging road.

I paddled south down the narrow part of Wakimika Lake. I wanted to camp where it opens up because of the big beautiful beaches there. But a log cabin was being built and a big sign declaring this to be "unceded Indian land". It wasn't a very welcoming sign so I didn't wish to stop and say hello. There was also a bear skin hung out to dry and a dog barking away. With the wind and chop picking up I decided to paddle (into the wind) to a mediocre campsite on a nearby peninsula. It was getting too rough to go any further.

On Saturday morning I headed down to Wakimika River at the south end of Wakimika Lake. I have to say that this was the best day of all. And not just because the sun had come out. The small river meanders through thick vegetation with many trees fallen across (but always a channel cleared) and the tallest, straightest, White Cedar trees I have ever seen. It was a cedarstrip builder's dream! But of course I would much rather see them on the shore than cut down for a canoe or anything else. After a couple of beaver dams the river opens up slightly. Under the water grows a long grass that appeared to me, because of the sunlight and slightly tannin coloured water, like the flowing golden locks of hair of Mother Earth herself. It was a most beautiful and enrapturing sight. I felt happy and at peace with myself and the world. I would definitely go back just for the opportunity to once again paddle this small Amazon-like river.

Before beginning my trip the police told me that if I got into any trouble there was a family living at the mouth of the Obabika River. So I decided to paddle up and say hello. As it turned out it was a very friendly couple, Alex and Mary Carol. After chatting for a while they invited me to come over for breakfast the following morning. Alex, a native who grew up on Obabika Lake, pointed out a nice campsite at the north end where I could find the trailhead to the old-growth forest. The campsite was one of the nicest I had seen so far, though also over used. With the sun still shining I headed out on the trail and saw the most majestic trees this side of the Rockies. I had no idea we had such big trees here in Ontario. Yet now, this tiny pocket which I could cover in an afternoon, was one of the largest, if not the largest, remaining stands of old-growth left in all of North America. I am so glad those 'radical' protesters, Alex among them, blockaded the logging roads in the early 90s and brought these last remaining grandfathers to the world's attention.

When I returned to my campsite I decided to take a swim and rinse out my clothes, even though the water was a bit chilly, so that I would not stink so badly when I went over for breakfast the next morning. I changed into my 'emergency' dry clothes and set the wet ones out on a rock to dry and left them overnight. Even though it was a clear night - I could see the stars, the milky way, the crescent moon and it's sparkling reflection on the still water - this was my second mistake. I didnít even bother to put the fly on my tent so I could watch the stars and the moon as I fell asleep. Well, Saturday must have been the eye of the storm because it started to rain again in the middle of the night. I jumped out to put the fly on but didn't bother collecting my clothes. I thought, "after that beautiful day this rain couldn't possibly last". Last it did! And it would get much worse before long.

I woke in the morning to cold and rain. And now the wind had picked up too. I thought this was a good thing because I had slept in and by using my sail the tailwind speeded my progress to my breakfast engagement. Alex and Mary Carol are a wonderful couple and I had a great time chatting with them. So much so that I lost track of time and it was noon before I set off, still hoping to make it to the car just before dark.

However, as I paddled/sailed down Obabika Lake the wind, chop, and rain really began to increase. Just half a kilometer before I had to cross the lake to get to the portage, the wind became even stronger and a powerful gust blew the sail right out of the boat. By the time I had turned the canoe around and fought my way back, the sail was nowhere to be seen. It had aluminum poles so it must have sunk to the bottom. I shouldn't have been using the sail in such strong winds. But I won't count this as mistake number three because it had no impact on what was to come. Indeed, losing the sail at this time probably saved me from using it in even stronger wind later and possibly getting swamped. Still, next time I'll put the sail away when the wind gets too strong. In fact, the wind and waves were getting so bad that I headed to a beach knowing that a crossing, even at the narrowest point of the lake, would be too risky. As soon as I landed I realised I was also getting cold as I was soaked through. Fortuitously, I was wearing my synthetic fleece pants, sweater, wool socks, etc. I would surely have become hypothermic had I been wearing cotton. Even so, I was still cold. I walked back a ways into the bush to get out of the wind and driving rain and started eating whatever food I had that did not require cooking. I knew that it was important to eat in order to fend off hypothermia. I waited an hour and made a dash across the lake to the portage.

Arriving at the other side of the portage I realised that there was no way I was going to make it back before dark so I paddled up Obabika Inlet on Lake Temagami until I was too tired and cold to go on. I set up my tent on a rather exposed campsite - there wasn't much choice as this entire area of Temagami had been burned and there weren't many big trees remaining. I was soaked right through. All my clothes were wet but one shirt. My sleeping bag was damp, my Thermarest mattress was wet, and the tent was wet. I used a towel to wipe down the inside of the tent as best I could. I lit the two candles I had and stood the Thermarest around them to dry. In the meantime I cooked a meal and ate as much as I could. When the Thermarest was mostly dry I crawled into my damp down sleeping bag and tried to sleep while the wind howled outside. It was even blowing inside the tent and this is when I promised myself I would invest in a good single wall, 4 season tent instead of just fantasizing about one.

On Monday morning the rain had let up but the wind was still blowing. I fought my way out to the Northwest Arm of Lake Temagami and attempted to cross to the opposite shore in order to get shelter from the wind. This was mistake number 3. The lake opened up here and the wind and waves were too much. I took a big chance and was very lucky when I turned back and made it to a small island near the shore where I started. I aimed for some cottages because I was really concerned about getting hypothermia if I spent another night in the tent. There were several cabins on the island - it was some kind of holiday camp with housekeeping. I called out but there was no answer and I didn't really expect one at this time of year.  Then I checked the cabin doors but found them all locked. Even the bathroom building was locked. Luckily, the last cabin I checked was left unlocked and I breathed a big sigh of relief. I stripped down, climbed into my sleeping bag, and hung all my wet clothes to dry on a line I strung up on the balcony. The wind was still so strong that the clothes were all blowing horizontal in the wind. I ate some more, put a matt over my damp Thermarest, took one last look at the 40 F. temperature INSIDE the cabin, and fell asleep feeling guilty about the worry I would be causing at home and listening to the wind howling outside. It sounded like the forest was going to come crashing down around me. But at least now I knew I would be OK until the storm passed.

Sure enough, my sister called the police on Monday night and asked them to go find me. But there was some "communication breakdown" and the Temagami police told her to file a missing person's report with the Toronto police even though all the relevant information was sitting in a folder in the Temagami office. So the Toronto police came over to the house and asked all kinds of morbid questions (like, "what is Tom's dentist's name?") scaring my family even more. The story with the Toronto police and the worry at home merits another story all together.

On Tuesday morning I had the last of my oatmeal for breakfast, put on some of my now dry clothes, settled into my sleeping bag, sat in a chair and did some reading. Then I heard banging noises and then voices outside. The OPP had come to 'rescue' me. I was actually surprised that they were going to give me AND my canoe a ride in their boat back to the car. I asked about break-and-enter and the cop said it's not against the law when it is a survival situation. So I spent the night in the unlocked, unheated, cabin when I could have chosen one with a wood stove and broken a window to get in! Anyway, I am grateful to the owners for leaving it unlocked.

All in all I felt a little embarrassed since I wasn't in a life threatening situation and probably wouldn't be for two more days (I still had food left for two days) and had no indications of hypothermia - and enough reading to keep me from getting too bored. Though I certainly did need rescuing for my family's sake.

The OPP were great. They mentioned that I did everything right under the circumstances. They saw I was OK and werenít too worried. They were more interested in the cedarstrip canoe I built! But the day before they rescued a group who were hypothermic with maybe only hours to spare. All in all they had pulled five groups off lakes in the area over those last two days.