Situated in northeastern Ontario, the Missinaibi River flows northeasterly for 426 kilometres from the Abitibi Uplands north of Chapleau to its confluence with the Moose River in the James Bay Lowlands. It offers one of the longest, unimpeded stretches of wilderness river environments found in Ontario. Regulated as a provincial park by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources in 1988, the Missinaibi was nominated to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System for its unspoiled scenic beauty, varied natural heritage features, its importance to the history of Canada’s development as a major fur trading route, and the potential it offers to visitors for an extended wilderness canoe and camping experience.
Although this part of Ontario may be reached quite easily by road, rail and air from major population centres in southern Ontario and neighboring U. S. states, the Missinaibi River itself has more limited access, a factor which has contributed to preserving its unspoiled nature. Its designation as a provincial park and its inclusion in the Canadian Heritage Rivers System are intended to ensure that experienced canoeists will be able to explore the Missinaibi ’s challenging white-water and wilderness scenery for many years to come.
From its source at Missinaibi Lake, just 5 km north of the division between the Great Lakes and James Bay watersheds, 305 meters above sea level, the Missinaibi River crosses two major geographic regions – the Abitibi Uplands of the Precambrian Shield and the James Bay Lowlands. Its watershed covers an area of 86,500 hectares. The Missinaibi is especially significant in that it provides a link between Lake Superior, just over 100 km to the west via the Michipicoten River, and James Bay, 72 km east via the Moose River – a fact which accounted for its very important role in the 18th and early l9th century fur trade in Canada.
While there is some mining and logging activity in the general area of the Missinaibi, it is not visible to visitors exploring the river. Except for a few small villages and towns at the rail and road crossings at Peterbell and Mattice, the river corridor remains largely unchanged since its days as a fur trading route.
The southern, upstream reaches of the Missinaibi flow through major lakes – Missinaibi and Brunswick, and large wetlands at Hay River and Peterbell, while the river itself is here characterized by a relatively narrow channel with numerous rapids and falls. In its central and longer, more northerly reaches, the river is generally wider and the flow slower, except for the area around Thunderhouse Falls where the river flows swiftly as it drops through steep-walled gorges.
With unspoiled nature all along its course, the Missinaibi offers visitors opportunities to explore the full breadth of natural heritage typical of northeastern Ontario. Its most notable features are:
For 140 years spanning the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Missinaibi River, with its links to Lake Superior and James Bay, was one of the most important fur trading routes in Ontario. Used first by Indians travelling to Moose Factory on James Bay to trade, the Missinaibi later carried traders from the highly competitive fur trading companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company. In the interior, trading posts were built at Wapiscogamy House (1776), Missinaibi House on Missinaibi Lake (1777), and at several locations on Brunswick Lake, starting with rival posts built in 1789 and 1796, respectively.
The fur trade along the Missinaibi continued until 1879, and the succession of Brunswick House posts served as a strategic centre for the fur trade throughout this entire period. The remains of Missinaibi House, a Hudson’s Bay post, are a focus of interest for archaeologists and visitors alike.
The fur trade declined in the early part of the 19th century as the demand for furs, such as beaver, fell in European markets. Later in the century, the area saw the completion of the Canadian National and Canadian Northern rail lines. With the arrival of settlers by train, villages and towns grew up along the rail corridors. More recently, the region was developed by the mining and lumber industries, activities which continue here today.
Long before Europeans arrived, the Missinaibi Lake area was inhabited by nomadic bands of Algonquin speaking people. Indian rock paintings called “pictographs” bear evidence to the region’s link with this pre-European past. The pictograph site at Fairy Point on Missinaibi Lake is considered one of the most important in Ontario.
The Missinaibi waterway provides fine opportunities for recreational activities such as lake and white-water canoeing, camping, wildlife viewing, and photography. Fishing for walleye and northern pike, lake sturgeon, smallmouth bass and brook trout is excellent on Missinaibi Lake and along the river.
Most of these activities may be enjoyed by those using the provincial park campground at Missinaibi Lake, which is accessible by way of an 88 km gravel road from Chapleau. The Missinaibi River itself, however, has only limited access and lacks facilities and services. These characteristics enhance the river’s wilderness appeal, but make it best suited to experienced travelers looking for a challenging, yet reasonably safe, wilderness canoe and camping trip.
Access: Several starting points are possible, depending upon the length of trip desired. Missinaibi Provincial Park campgrounds, at the head of the river, may be reached from Chapleau on Highway 101. The village of Missanabie may be reached via Highway 651 north from Highway 101. Via Rail passenger trains run three times weekly northwest from Capreol, crossing the river at Peterbell and the Ontario Northland Railway runs daily service from Moosonee to Cochrane, crossing the Moose River just below its confluence with the Missinaibi. The lowest possible starting point downriver – accessible by means other than float plane – is at Mattice, on the Trans-Canada Highway.
Accommodation and Services: Since this area is relatively remote, accommodation and services are limited. The village of Missanabie offers hotel accommodation and supplies. Camping facilities are available at Barclay Bay on Missinaibi Lake. Mattice has limited services and some overnight accommodation. No established campground or other facilities are available for canoeists leaving the Missinaibi at Moose River Crossing while waiting for the southbound train from Moosonee. However, fly-in and fly-out services are available, permitting shorter trips.
Canoeing: While the entire Missinaibi may be tackled by experienced canoeists, most approach it in two major sections. The upper Missinaibi River, from Missanabie village or Missinaibi Lake to Mattice is a 236 km route with 28 portages requiring 10–12 days. The longer Missinaibi, from Mattice to the Moose River rail crossing and on to Moosonee, is a 320 km route with 7–10 portages requiring 7–9 days. Detailed descriptions of these routes are available from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.
Canoeing is good from June to September. Portages, which are clearly marked, vary in length and difficulty, and their locatians change with seasonally fluctuating water levels. The average gradient along the river is less than 1 m/km; however, canoeists wishing to tackle the Missinaibi should be experienced because the river has many difficult sections and numerous, changing portages. Camping spots are limited on some portions of the river. The lower waters of late summer provide additional camping sites on exposed river banks and sandbars, but also expose rocky shallows which must be portaged or lined. For the experienced to expert canoeist, the Missinaibi provides a challenging test of skill and endurance, particularly in June when water levels are higher.
Topographic Maps: The Missinaibi River is covered by 1:250,000 scale National Topographic Series Maps Foleyet (42B), Kapuskasing (42G), Smokey Falls (42J), Moose River (42I), and Moosanee (42P) – available from the Canada Map Office, 615 Booth Street, Ottawa ON K1A 0E9. 1:50,000 scale maps are available fram the Canada Map Office. The Public Information Centre, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR), Queen’s Park, Toronto can provide specialized canoe trip maps for the entire Missinaibi at the l:l00,000 scale.
Missinaibi Provincial Park – Services, Permits and Regulations: OMNR Chapleau District Office, 190- 192 Cherry St., Chapleau, ON P0M IK0 Tel. 705-864-1710; or, OMNR, Kapuskasing Area Office, 6- 8-1O Government Rd., Kapuskasing, ON P5N 2W4 Tel.705-335-6191, or visit www.ontarioparks.com/english/miss.html
Tourist Information - Accommodation & Visitor Services: “1991 Ontario Traveler’s Encyclopedia”, free from: Ontario Travel, Queen’s Park, Toronto, ON M7A 2E5; Cochrane-Timiskaming Travel Assoc., Box 1162 Timmins, ON P4N 7K9 or James Bay Frontier Travel Assoc., Suite ll9, lO1 Mall, Timmins, ON T4N 7H9; Ontario Northland Polar Bear Express Train, 65 Front Street West, Toronto, ON M5J 1P6, Phone: 416-965-4268.
Canadian Heritage Rivers System: National Manager, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0M5. Tel. 819-994-2913, Fax 819-997-0835. E-mail address: email@example.com or, Ontario Member, Canadian Heritage Rivers Board, c/o Director, Ontario Parks and Natural Heritage Areas, Queen’s Park, Toronto ON M7A 1W3.
Harrington, L. “Canoe Country”. Canadian Geographical Journal. August, 1946.
Baldwin, D. & G. Taylor. “The Fur Trade in the Moose-Missinaibi River Valley: 1770-1917.” Research Report #8. Ont. Min. Culture & Recreation. 1975.
Newman, P. Company of Adventurers, 1985; Caesars of the Wilderness, 1987. Penguin Books.
Reid, R. J. Grand. “The Missinaibi”. In Canoeing Ontario’s Rivers. Douglas and McIntyre. 1988.
Harting, T. “Looking at Light”. Nastawgan. Journal of the Wilderness Canoe Association. Spring, 1989.
Reid, Ron. “Pictured Waters”. Seasons. Federation of Ontario Naturalists. Spring, 1990.
Wilson, Hap, Missinaibi: Journey to the Northern Sky, Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association, 1994. The definitive canoe guide to the historic trade route between Lake Superior and James Bay along the Michipicoten and Missinaibi Rivers. Provides historical background.