Paddling through Barron Canyon in Algonquin Park

Our family’s cottage is about an hour from the east side of Algonquin Park, which is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but we haven’t spent much time there over the years because we’ve been so focused on spending time at the cottage. I wanted to correct that this year, so we did a weekend camping trip with friends, which I wrote about recently, but there’s so much else I’ve always wanted to do there, and one of those things is to paddle Barron Canyon — probably one of the most impressive canyons or gorges in all of Ontario, if not Canada. It’s almost three times as high as Niagara Falls, with sheer cliffs of granite plunging 100 metres down to the river below (we took some pictures from the hiking trail on top of the canyon on our last trip into the park, an example of which appears below).

The view from the Barron Canyon hiking trail down to the river below

So when a couple of friends said they were interested in bringing their kayaks up to do the canyon, we jumped at it. They were coming from Almonte, which is about two hours away, so we agreed to meet at the Squirrel Rapids parking lot at noon on Friday morning — Squirrel Rapids is the put in point at the southeastern end of the Barron River, and is located about ten minutes inside the park’s Sand Gate, which is not far from Pembroke (just for reference, the Barron River ultimately flows into the Petawawa River, which in turn flows southeast and joins the Ottawa River).

We got to the Squirrel Rapids parking lot at about 12:30 and unloaded the kayaks. A note if you want to do this and are planning to meet people there: You will lose cellular signal as soon as you pass the Algonquin Portage outfitters office on Barron Canyon road — which is just before the pavement gives way to dirt and gravel — and then you get a little signal at the Sand Lake Gate park office, but it disappears soon afterwards.

Getting ready to head up the river from Squirrel Rapids put in

It was a beautiful late August morning, with just some light clouds and about 26 degrees Celsius, as we set off to paddle up the river (technically we were going against the current, but it was late in the season so the current was not very strong at all). Some people who paddle the Barron Canyon will put in at Squirrel Rapids and then take out at Brigham Chute, or do the opposite and put in at Brigham and take out at Squirrel, but those require having a second vehicle at the opposite end. So we decided to paddle up and back in an afternoon — which as it turns out was a little ambitious 🙂

The first part of the paddle is quite short: Only a kilometre or so of easy paddling through a marsh to get to the portage around Cache Rapids, which is about 420 metres long. I was hoping the trail would be gentle and flat, but that was not the case — it is fairly rocky and filled with roots, and goes up and down quite a bit before you get to the end. There are actually two places you can put in; the official put in is across a short wooden bridge and is wide, with rock steps leading down to the water, but if it is busy (which it often is) you can drop a canoe or kayak in just before the bridge — provided you make sure to turn right fairly quickly, so as not to get sucked into the rapids.

The outflow of Cache Rapids near the portage take out point

After the portage, it’s a good half hour or more of paddling through a somewhat marshy river (filled with dozens of huge deadheads, left over from the river’s past as a popular logging route) before you get to the canyon proper, where you can see the giant cliffs soaring up from the water. It really is quite impressive to see not just the cliffs, with the terraced look that much of the exposed Canadian Shield has, but also the huge rockslides along the way — including some massive rocks that must have been shifted by earthquakes, or some huge force. Most of the rock face is a sort of burnt orange colour, which I found out from Bob McElroy’s excellent blog is a result of Xanthoria lichen (Bob’s blog has tons of information about different day and weekend camping trips in and around Algonquin, and is highly recommended).

 

By the time we got to the end of the canyon, we had spent about three hours paddling and portaging, which was quite a bit longer than I expected it to take. The river is only about seven kilometres from end to end, and since paddling six kilometres usually takes me about an hour or so, I figured it might take an hour and a half to paddle, plus about 20 to 30 minutes for the portage. However, I didn’t factor in time spent sightseeing along the way, and the portage also took longer than I expected, because my friend Nathan and I carried two kayaks and then went back and got the other two kayaks. Two of them were quite heavy (about 55 pounds each without gear) and it was fairly slow going over the rocks. On a cooler day it might not have been quite as bad.

Since we had seen most of the canyon already, the return trip was somewhat faster, but we stopped at the portage to have a snack of cheese, carrots and some delicious wild boar sausage that a friend provided. Then it was some more kayak carrying and a kilometre paddle and we were back at the Squirrel Rapids parking lot. It was a fantastic day, but I think we were all pretty beat at the end of it. If and when we do this trip again, I would probably leave a lot earlier in the day and then we could take a more relaxing pace and have some time to visit Brigham Chute as well, which I’ve heard is pretty. But in any case, it was a beautiful paddle and well worth the effort and sore muscles.

 

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