Wilderness in the Heart of Cottage Country: The Upper Gibson River
Ontario's Muskoka region is a breathtaking landscape of windswept pines, imposing rocky knolls
and countless lakes, rivers and streams. The area can be a paddler’s paradise if you don’t mind
sharing your trip with power boats, cottagers and long weekend revelers. While it's true that
many of the ‘wild’ Muskoka routes are dotted with millionaire’s summer retreats or choked with
boat traffic, one can still escape to a few secluded regions where peace and solitude awaits. The
Severn River Conservation Reserve near Bala is one such region and it contains one of my
favorite Muskoka canoe routes; the Upper Gibson River loop. This large tract of land protects the
upper reaches of the Gibson River and is dotted with numerous long, finger-like lakes. The only
development you will find in this area are a few remote hunt camps and a handful of perfect
Shallow water on the upper Gibson
The journey begins at the Nile Mile Lake Marina located 7km south of the quaint town of
Torrance. On our exploratory trip to the area, my father and I arrived to the marina by 9am on a
late August Saturday and sure enough, the public lot was completely full. Thankfully, you can
spend a few dollars and park your vehicle at the marina. Waving goodbye to marina attendant,
we soon found ourselves gliding across the placid waters of Nine Mile Lake. The southern
reaches of this elongated lake are encompassed by typical Muskoka cottage development, while
the northern reaches are comprised of crown land. Our 'wild' route would see us paddle south-
east towards the inlet of the Gibson River. Once you reach the Gibson, you leave the cottage
traffic behind and begin a scenic paddle through extensive wetlands and lush, vegetated
Heading downriver, we quickly lifted over a small dam and entered a narrow stretch
blocked by several beaver dams. In higher water, this section could be easily paddled with
minimal difficulty, but a bit of hard work is required when the levels drop. As we found
ourselves traversing the route in late August of a dry year, we resorted to lining the canoe
through a few tight sections where the river was reduced to a trickle.
The Gibson gradually widened as we paddled downstream towards Bridge Rapids, a rock
garden requiring an easy liftover. When levels are higher, you may be able to run the set or opt to
take a short 20m portage on river left. As we paddled further downriver, we were startled by a
deafening clap of thunder. Quickening our pace, we hastily portaged past another parched rapid
and headed out across a small pond towards the Beaver Dam Falls portage. Shimmering forks of
lightening danced across the horizon and within a few short moments, the full brunt of the storm
was upon us. Reaching the portage landing, we jumped out of our canoe and sought shelter in the
woods. As the rains pelted down with a tenacious ferocity, we reassured ourselves that this was
merely a brief summer storm as the pre-trip forecast had indicated a weekend of sunny skies.
Rain was an unwelcome occurrence, especially on this trip, as I quickly realized I had forgotten
to pack my waterproof rain pants; a rookie mistake. I was forced to make due with a combination
of my rain jacket and a bathing suit.
The electrical storm eventually abated, but the rain persisted as we pressed onwards
towards Woodland Lake. The short portage around Double Duty Rapids proved slippery and
challenging in the rainy conditions but, as we entered Woodland Lake, the rains finally gave way
to a thick blanket of fog.
The Gibson exits Woodland Lake by means of Woodland Rapids. In high water you may
be able to run the rapids; unfortunately for us, they were reduced to a mere a trickle. The
adjacent portage was heavily overgrown and it was obvious most choose to run or line the rapids.
Opting to line, we soon reached the confluence with picturesque Brotherson’s Lake, wherein we
paddled to a perfect island site nestled among towering pines. Following a successful fishing
outing to nearby Narrow Lake, we headed back to camp and prepared a scrumptious supper of
fresh caught fish and rice. As the day wound down, the rains returned and we retired to the tent,
drifting off to the soothing sound of raindrops dancing on the fly.
We awoke the following morning to a landscape immersed in a thick blanket of fog.
After spending an hour taking pictures and video of the mesmerizing scene, we packed up camp
and headed towards the Turtle Lake portage. The steep portage skirts Scenic Falls, an aptly
named set of cascades which make for a great photography opportunity. We would have stayed
to photograph the cascade ourselves had the persistent rains not returned. Pressing onwards to
Nile Mile, the rains became heavier. By the time we had completed the final portage of the trip,
we found ourselves soaked from head to toe.
Fresh caught fish
As we journeyed back to the marina, a passing boater spotted our canoe and slowed
down. We must have looked a pair of drowned rats to him as he shouted though the downpour
asking if we needed a tow back to the marina. We thanked him for his kindness but continued
onwards under our own power. In hindsight, the tow would have been a good idea as the next
few kilometers were met with driving rains and a chilling headwind that sent shivers through our
rain sodden bodies. By the time we reached the marina, I was thrown into a fit of uncontrollable
shivers that lasted for quite some time even after I had changed into dry clothes.
Despite the un-forecasted rainy conditions, the Upper Gibson River loop had established
itself as one of my favorite 'wild' Muskoka Routes. The mixture of lake and river travel, scenic
lakes, lack of cottages, excellent campsites and prime fishing made for an excellent weekend
getaway. I will likely return to the area in the future, hopefully under sunnier skies.
In the five years since this trip, I've never forgotten my rain pants!
Our 2011 video of the route!